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Installation view, Wifredo Lam: The Imagination at Work, Pace Gallery, New York, photography by Jonathan Nesteruk © 2021 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris

Essays

Art Historian Julián Sánchez González Discusses Wifredo Lam’s Complex Legacy

Published Nov 23, 2021

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Julián Sánchez González © Junting Zhou

Julián Sánchez González is a PhD Candidate in Art History at Columbia University in New York. His research examines the relationships between visual culture and non-hegemonic spiritualities in the Caribbean, Latin America, and the United States, and he was the Pérez Art Museum Miami’s 2020-21 Caribbean Cultural Institute Research Fellow. In the following conversation, which has been edited and condensed, Sánchez González discusses Wifredo Lam’s multifaceted practice, the artist’s connections to Afro-Cuban religion, and how his work might be understood in relation to Afrofuturism.

Claire Selvin: In what ways was Lam’s work in dialogue with the European surrealists and cubists he associated with early in his career, and how can we see his practice as divergent from theirs?

Julián Sánchez González: Wifredo Lam’s work, life story, and career are as complex as they are layered. He's an artist that incorporated many different avant-garde movements and styles into his work. At the same time, he was exploring a language that would allow him to reflect what it meant to be Cuban and, more specifically, Afro-Cuban. He was very much invested in trying to bring to the fore the importance of Afro-Cuban culture, mainly because he saw that the avant-garde movements of the beginning of the 20th century in Cuba were not paying enough attention to the historical legacy of African slaves in the country.

Lam was born and raised in Cuba through his teenage years, and when he was around 20 years old he migrates to Europe and lives in Spain for about 15 years. While in Spain, he was able to study academic painting and get in touch with the influence of the cubist avant-garde movement that was rising at the time. He leaves Spain because of the civil war and he decides to go to Paris, where he starts getting in touch with the surrealist movement.

One of the most important things that influenced his art during this time—by getting in touch with these two avant-garde movements—is his interest in African sculptures, African masks, African art. This is obviously a very contested element of his career since it’s a Western European view that he learns to incorporate into his own work.

When the time comes for him to flee France because of the beginning of World War II, he ends up going to Martinique. This is when things really start shifting and changing for him. This is something that makes us understand his work in a much broader, global, Caribbean perspective because he gets in touch with one of the founding members of the Négritude literary movement, Aimé Césaire, and also his wife, who was a poet and writer in her own right, Suzanne. He starts getting interested in building a language that is much more grounded in the Caribbean reality, which is traversed by Afro diasporic culture. This is the time when Lam starts incorporating a diverse range of natural elements—flora and fauna—in the compositions he’s making. The relocation to Martinique and then Cuba happens in 1941, and he paints his really important piece The Jungle in 1943. This is the one that is most talked about mainly because it’s part of MoMA’s collection, but during this time there are so many other paintings, such as Le Sombre Malembo, Dieu du Carrefour (1943) and Omi Obini (1943), that are equally important that show his interest in incorporating Afro diasporic Caribbean culture into his compositions.

When he comes back to Cuba and relocates to Havana, he starts building really important friendships with anthropologists and researchers of Afro-Cuban culture who had been invested in bringing to the fore the importance of Afro-Cuban religious systems, cosmogonies, music, and instruments. A really important acquaintance was Lydia Cabrera, an anthropologist who wrote a momentous book about Afro-Cuban religions called El Monte. But she was not the only one—there were also relationships that Lam was able to build with the anthropologist Fernando Ortiz and the writer Alejo Carpentier.

Lam was a politically committed artist in so many different ways. He was not only spiritual in the ways he depicted Santería iconographies and subject matters, but he was also politically committed to the fact that, when he came back to Cuba, he started seeing disenfranchised Black communities all over the country as well as a growing tourism industry that was fueled by the rise of the sugarcane industry. This was mostly dominated by American companies and American businesspeople. In his eyes, there was this really fraught situation wherein the country was pretty much sold to American capital during the Batista regime. That made him committed to changing the situation that was happening around him.

The way that Lam considers, appropriates, and almost cannibalizes this Western language—the avant-garde language he learns in Europe—and mixes that with a series of local concerns and influences makes him a very original artist. He is regarded today as a modern master globally, and he proposed a very specific series of artistic strategies and devices that allowed him to push the boundaries of painting. The aesthetic problems that the surrealists and the cubists had—he was able to solve them precisely because of those conversations that he engaged with. The work of critics and art historians like Gerardo Mosquera from Cuba really allow us to understand how the inclusion of an Afro-Caribbean perspective was not only a way of fighting against a fraught political and economic situation, but also proposing a type of Black Modernism that would transform the history of art.

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Installation view, Wifredo Lam: The Imagination at Work, Pace Gallery, New York, photography by Jonathan Nesteruk © 2021 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris

CS: Lam once said that he considered his practice “an act of decolonization not in a physical sense, but in a mental one.” How did he engage with notions of decolonization through his art and what is the art historical legacy of these efforts?

JSG: Paired with his own concerns about what was going on around him politically and socially, a big part of these pictorial strategies that Lam utilized in his works in order to subvert modern hierarchies had a lot to do with what later came to be known, particularly through the writing of Édouard Glissant, as Creolization. What I mean by this is essentially that his art combines different cultural elements without subsuming one cultural element to the other. Rather, he keeps a permanent irresolution in the ways that these two or more elements talk to one another. There’s a coexistence of cultural structures, and these structures always talk to one another and exist in a permanent state of tension.

Lam was someone who was also vocal about the fact that he was not very interested in depicting race or color or ethnicity, but rather communicating an ethos of what it meant to be Black. So, that’s why he says he’s not interested in decolonizing the physical aspects of life, but rather the mental ones.

He was always an artist that was moving in and out of different groups and in and out of different ideologies. That permanent state of flux, I think, you can see reflected in his work as well. For Gerardo Mosquera, the idea of trying to identify specific elements of Afro diasporic religions in his work really beats the purpose—it’s more like understanding a general picture of sorts. But there are other emerging scholars who have been interested in trying to understand what specific elements he’s incorporating into his work that come from the experiences he had in Cuba and different conversations he had with people like Fernando Ortiz and Lydia Cabrera.

His work is multifarious, layered, and very deep. A single interpretation cannot be done, and I think that’s the beauty of it. It speaks to the many different points of entry or contact through which you can interpret Caribbean culture in general.

But Lam, even as a supporter of the Cuban Revolution, was never someone who really wanted to stay in Cuba. He felt that many of his contemporaries did not understand the kind of project he was invested in—recuperating Afro-Cuban culture. That was mainly because Afro-Cuban culture was seen from a very exoticizing viewpoint. He was trying to do something completely different and felt that people in Cuba did not resonate with his explorations. At the same time, it was really hard for him to be able to put together a visual language that would make sense for him to communicate his message in Europe as well. That’s why he uses the artistic strategies of the avant-garde—so that audiences in places like France or Spain could better understand the artistic project that he was trying to pursue.

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Wifredo Lam, Le Vent chaud [Jungle Gods] [Je m’en vais] [The Migratory Birds], 1948, oil on burlap, 25-1/2" × 32-1/4" (64.8 cm × 81.9 cm) © 2021 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris

CS: Why was Surrealism a vehicle through which Lam and other artists of his time expressed anti-colonialist sentiments?

JSG: Part of the radicality of the many different avant-garde movements of 20th century Europe is that they reacted to what they saw as a rise of decadent culture in many urban centers—starting from the culture of spectacle to the rise of financial and economic gaps in the population to the increased fascination with materialistic culture. Cubism had a take on it, Futurism had a very different take on it, much more aligned with the development of capitalism as well as the political right. The way the surrealists wanted to approach the issue was through an exploration of the unconscious: trying to liberate the unconscious in order to trigger a revolution of the mind so that people could think differently and not be as alienated by the rise of capitalism.

A way for them to do this was through automatic processes—automatic drawing or unconscious writing of poems to try to get to that side of the brain or consciousness that had been blocked by cultural structures, social structures, political structures, and so forth. This moment is also the rise of the building and opening of really important ethnographic collections in Europe. This is a time when people like André Breton could be exposed to art from Africa, Oceania, the Middle East, and other parts of the world. So, once they start seeing these different collections, they start realizing that there’s a different way of approaching the building of images and of our understanding of our relationship to the world: less rational and positivistic.

Through a romanticized and primitivistic way of looking at difference, they started positing this idea that the “primitive” and “primitive cultures” were ways to better understand human consciousness and unconscious. That led them to connect to artists—self-taught artists, especially—who had migrated from different parts of the world into Europe or were locally-based in regions like North Africa. Many surrealist figures also traveled to adjacent geographies of Europe and the Caribbean. This is the reason why racial and cultural difference was so much at the core of the surrealist proposal.

People like Lam and Césaire felt that Surrealism gave them an entry point into an exploration of this shared idea of debunking the modernist project and hierarchies that were already in place, but also of exploring their own cultures and their own languages by appropriating this surrealist language and transforming it. So, this is a broad and ambitious project that the surrealists decided to embark upon, and it was so successful because this idea of the unconscious and the tension between the real and the surreal, what we can see and what we cannot see, is something that connects with different spiritual systems throughout the world.

There’s also this breaking down and creation of figures that were plural and did not have one specific aesthetic coherence, but rather represented the product of fears, horrors, and desires. We can see this, for instance, in the illustrated work of André Masson for Martinique, charmeuse de serpents. In general terms, there’s this really fascinating post-colonial, and to a certain extent decolonial, attitude in surrealist thought. It was a very contested movement and a movement that was very politically diverse, and Lam was never really aligned with just one type of thinking.

CS: The Santería religion was a major source of inspiration for Lam in the 1940s. Can you tell me a bit about Santería’s historical significance in Cuba and some of its tenets?

JSG: Santería is one of many Afro Cuban religions. It’s not the only one, and that’s something really important to bear in mind when we talk about the spiritual ecosystem of a place like Cuba. There are many types of collectivities that practice related but structurally different religions.

Santería, or Lucumí, is a syncretic religion, and it is the product of the transformation of the Yoruba religion that comes from western Africa due to the transatlantic slave trade, especially in the 19th century when the rise of the sugarcane industry in Cuba starts taking on a global toll. It’s the mixture of Yoruba and Catholic religions that gives way to the appearance of Santería in Cuba.

With Santería, practitioners, or santeros, believe that there’s a single deity, which is called Olodumare. People often think that Afro diasporic religions are polytheistic, but Santería, very much like Vodoun in Haiti, is monotheistic. The ways in which Santería approaches this one single deity is through different guardian spirits, which are called Orishas. The Orishas are deities that have personalities, preferred offerings, back stories, and certain powers that are associated with specific elements and materials in the natural world. There’s a whole cosmology around each one of these Orishas, and it is believed that every person has a specific Orisha that protects them and belongs to them.

The Orishas are usually very beautifully connected to the environment. They call people to cultivate a respectful connection with the natural world, a connection that is sustainable and outside of that extractivist logic of Western rationality.

It is estimated that around 75 percent of Catholics in Cuba are practitioners of some sort of Santería, and this is why critics like Gerardo Mosquera, for instance, say that Afro diasporic spirituality is ever-present in Cuba. Cubans will be connected to or at least have some knowledge of the importance of Afro diasporic spirituality, and Lam was no exception. It’s very much a part of everyday Cuban life, which is not the case for certain countries in Latin America. It's not the case here in Colombia, for instance—we’re much more connected to other types of spiritual systems belonging to the Native American cultures of the country, particularly from the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, the Andes Mountains, and the Amazon jungle.

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Wifredo Lam, Sans titre, 1972, oil on canvas, 17-3/4" × 13-3/4" (45.1 cm × 34.9 cm) © 2021 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris

CS: Lam’s work was also deeply informed by the Négritude movement, and later in his career he created paintings featuring futuristic, angular figures. To what extent can we understand Lam’s practice as a precursor of Afrofuturism?

JSG: I love that question, I have to admit, because it’s very generative. We can speculate a lot since we’re not entirely sure whether Lam was interested in Space Age explorations of the 1960s while he was living in Italy. I’m much more familiar with the kind of explorations he was doing in the 1940s and 1950s while he was living in the Caribbean. That said, I think it’s not entirely far-fetched to see his work as a prefiguration of some of the concerns related to Afrofuturism that were put forth by artists and intellectuals in the 1970s and 1980s. One of the main tenets of Afrofuturism is thinking of the experiences of the African diaspora, of Black individuals, through the technologies of the 20th century—how these technologies can allow people to craft new perspectives, new futures, new spaces for themselves.

In that sense, I think Lam could fall into this category. You can think about his own investment in Santería as a form of technology. A spiritual system, very much like a drum or ritualistic experience, can, indeed, be thought of as a technology. I think this allowed him to create new propositions of the human psyche, temporal regimes, and different spaces in his art. As the scholar Kara Keeling has explored in her recent writing, Afrofuturism is not only about space explorations and the alienation of otherness, but also deep inner explorations of Black subjectivities beyond their own time. We can see this in the work of experimental musicians like Alice Coltrane. If we see Lam’s work through this lens, I think it does align, at least as a preamble, with the Afrofuturistic vision.

Essays — Art Historian Julián Sánchez González Discusses Wifredo Lam’s Complex Legacy, Nov 23, 2021