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enjoy picks: Wifredo Lam

mumok collects

Wifredo Lam
Elegua, 1959
Oil on canvas
110 × 85 × 2 cm
Acquired in 1960

In a polyphonic modernism that does not travel the one-way-street of a Eurocentric art history, the work of Wifredo Lam (1902–1980) confronts the early avant-garde with its own origins. Lam, born in Cuba with African and Chinese roots, joined the surrealist movement in Paris in 1923, and became a friend of Pablo Picasso. Just a first glance at his Elegua (1959) in the mumok collection leads us to remember Picasso’s Guernica (1936)— for good reason. Picasso and the painters of the early avant-garde in Europe used African and Indonesian artefacts, taking their forms of expression in order to gain a new understanding of reality and its depiction in painting. This well-known trigger for cubist abstraction can also be critically questioned. When Pablo Picasso paints African masks for the faces of the women in his famous Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907), he is using objects that came from specific ritual, social, or religious contexts for his own scene in a brothel.(1) The cubists were interested in form and not in the original significance of the objects that they either collected themselves or were able to see in the Musée d‘Ethnographie du Trocadéro, founded in 1878, with its collection of cultural objects that was also an expression of France’s colonial expansion at the time.

Wifredo Lam was probably one of the very first artists to be aware of the one-sided appropriation of foreign culture among his circles. When he had to flee France in 1941, he first went to Martinique—on the same ship as André Breton and Claude Lévi-Strauss—and from there to Cuba. On Martinique he met Aimé Césaire, the poet and the instigator of négritude, a movement that formed in the 1920s and asked as to an own identity within colonial contexts and dependencies. Back in Cuba, Lam was overwhelmed by the backwardness of a country where he was not only discriminated due to the color of his skin, but also completely subjected to American imperialism and its structures of exploitation. At the time, Cuba was not only the supplier of valuable sugar cane but also part of the American entertainments industry. Hollywood in particular disseminated an image of an exotic Cuba that forced many inhabitants into dependency and prostitution: “Havana at that time was a land of pleasure, of sugary music, rumbas, mambos and so forth. The Negroes were considered picturesque … As for mulatto women, they were much sought after and as often as not became prostitutes. (…) What I saw on my return was like some sort of hell. For me, trafficking in the dignity of a people is just that: hell.”(2)
Around this time Lam found ways to express African-Cuban identity in his painting. To today, a key part of this cultural identity is the syncretic Santeria religion, with its roots in the religious practices of the Yoruba from Nigeria, Togo, and Benin. In Santeria, Christian doctrines are included, and this is not recognized but simply tolerated by the Catholic church. For a long time, Santeria was attributed to the Cuban lower classes of people of color, while the educated and financial elite distanced itself from this culture that derived from a tradition of slavery. Wifredo Lam found a form of expression for this culture with no independent artistic tradition. It was influenced by European modernism, but with the knowledge that this itself was inspired by the colonial transfer of African and Oceanic art. A style that is aware of its colonial origins is now used in reverse in order to create an independent Afro-Cuban style.

Elegua shows a woman in a cubist and surreal formal idiom against a gloomy looking brown-gray background. The figure is starkly abstract, with the head barely discernible and its elongated hands and circular torso all the more visible. In the Picasso 1930s style, everything is flat and without depth or three-dimensionality. The woman is not a portrait, but a transcendental depiction of Lam’s Cuban godmother Mantonica Wilson, a powerful healer, priestess, seer, and shaman of Santeria. In Lam’s work, the greatly abstracted heads of women are frequently like horse’s heads, but that is less explicit here. In the symbolism of Santeria this means that a believer is possessed by a god (Orisha) or equipped with that god’s power, and thus “ridden” by the god’s spirit. The female power of the priestess as a “femme cheval” in the person of his godmother—in all aspects completely anticolonial—is Lam’s recurrently enacted own connection to his own négritude.

The only bright color in this picture is a tender green, used sparingly on the shape in the center. With its ornamental and pointed vertically aligned shapes, this motif recalls Lam’s pictures of totems, with associations to sculptures from the Pacific region. This shape looks as if it is part of the woman’s body and grown into it, unlike the bowl that the horse-headed priestess is holding in her right hand, out of which peers a small and almost cute head with pointed ears, button eyes, and opened mouth. This is Elegua, an Orisha, part of the world of Yoruba spirits that found its way into the “new” world and the Santeria culture on slavery ships. He is placed on doors, shows the way, and facilitates openings. He is the god of roads and crossroads, and without his permission no Santeria ceremony may take place. He is the witness of all human endeavors, and without his blessing there is no progress and nothing can succeed in the world.(3)

The picture was painted in 1959, when Lam was again living in Europe and only following events from Cuba from a distance. On 1 January 1959, the Cuban revolutionaries drove out the dictator Fulgenio Bautista, and with Fidel Castro a new age began, for which Wifredo Lam also had high hopes for social self-determination and a re-evaluation of Cuban culture and identity. Elegua is presented so forthrightly in this painting, and it seems quite obvious to see this work in this context of new beginning with the deity as the spiritual door-opener and companion of the revolution. Even if this interpretation may go a little too far, it remains the case that we here see the recurrence of that magic and spirituality in Lam’s images that the European and American avant-garde of the postwar period had abandoned. Or, as Césaire later wrote about Lam: “In a society where money and the machine have immeasurably increased the distance between Man and things, Wifredo Lam fixes on canvas the ceremony through which everything exists; the ceremony of the physical union of Man and the world.”(4)

Jörg Wolfert

(1) Paula Sato, “Wifredo Lam, the Shango Priestess, and the Femme Cheval,” in Journal of International Women’s Studies, vol. 17, no. 3, June 2016, p. 94.
(2) Wifredo Lam, cited from Max-Pol Fouchet, in ibid., p. 95.
(4) Aime Césaire, cited from Samantha A. Noël, “Brazenly Avant-Garde. Wifredo Lam’s Transformation of Cuba’s Tropical Terrain,” in Samantha A. Noël, Tropical Aesthetics of Black Modernism, Durham 2021, p. 87.