Afro-Cuban Roots to Parisian Recognition

La Lettre, III
Jeune Fille sur fond vert fonce
Jeune Fille sur fond gris
Figure
A trois centimetres da la terre
Wifredo Lam and Picasso in Mougins
Announciation Plate III
Coq caraibe
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Wifredo Lam was a man born between worlds. His heritage, a blend of Chinese, African, and Spanish, mirrored the artistic crossroads where he found his voice. Early on, Lam felt a disconnect from his Afro-Cuban roots, and he distanced himself from his ethnic and cultural backgrounds, choosing instead to pursue artistic success. Then, Pablo Picasso reminded him of the power held within his heritage.

Wifrido Lam: 3 Pivots and 1 Diversion

Three pivots and one diversion outline Wifredo Lam’s (1902-1982) artistic development. He was born in the small Cuban town of Sagua la Grande near a sugar plantation.

Pivot 1: Havana, Cuba to Madrid, Spain

Lam’s first pivot was his small-town escape when he left for Havana at the age of fourteen to study portraiture painting. By twenty-one, he exhibited at the annual salon and received a grant from his hometown to study painting in Europe.

Arriving in Madrid in 1923, he formally studied under a conservative painter focusing on traditional techniques and at a more experimental art school known for its non-conformist approach.

Diversion 1: The Spanish Civil War

During the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939), he was diverted from artistic pursuits to work in a munitions factory and as a militiaman in defence of Madrid on the side of the left-leaning Republicans. The war distracted him from painting, but fatefully, he was incapacitated by poisoning from handling chemical products in the munitions factory and so took up painting again. After fifteen years of living in Spain, Lam was compelled to leave on account of supporting the losing side in the Civil War.

Pivot 2: Meeting Pablo Picasso

At thirty-six, he experienced his second pivot when he arrived in Paris with little more than a few paintings and a letter of introduction to Pablo Picasso. In his book Race, Anthropology, and Politics in the Work of Wifredo Lam, Claude Cernuschi describes the meeting as follows:

Upon meeting Lam, Picasso could not help showing him an African sculpture from his collection. “You should be proud,” Picasso exclaimed; “Why?” Lam asked; “Because this was made by an African,” Picasso replied, “and you have African blood in you.” For Picasso, Lam’s ethnicity literally embodied the very qualities from which he drew so much inspiration; these were not qualities Lam needed to acquire; these were qualities with which Lam was “naturally” endowed, qualities Picasso obviously hoped would transfer to him. “I think there’s some of my blood in your veins,” he told Lam, “you must be a relative of mine, a cousin.”

To have this titan of the art world affirm his heritage ignited a dormant pride within Lam, from being indifferent to his Cuban-African heritage to embracing and drawing inspiration from it. Picasso adopted his new cousin into his vibrant circle, which included renowned painters like Georges Braque, Henri Matisse, Joan Miro, and Fernand Leger. Art critics, dealers, and poets like Andre Breton (Surrealism’s founder) and Michel Leiris. Leiris becomes Lam’s confidant and guide, leading him on visits to the collection at the Museum of Mankind, where he embraces what at the time was referred to as primitive art. Like other Surrealists, he replaces faces with what resembles African masks. Unlike other Surrealists, he avoids stereotyping Africans.

Living in Paris during the peak of Surrealism, under the direct influence of the founders of Cubism (Braque and Picasso) and fueled by this newfound appreciation for his heritage, Lam synthesises his own style – a fusion of European modernism and Afro-Cuban traditions.

Pivot 3: World War II & Return to Cuba

In 1941, World War II forced Lam back to Cuba, a homecoming that provided his third pivot. Here, surrounded by the vibrant culture he once distanced himself from, Lam fully embraced his Afro-Cuban heritage and authentically integrated it into his artwork. He did this by adding the flora and colours of Cuba and symbols from Santeria into his art, depicting supernatural beings merging with the natural world, replacing faces with masks and humans with hybrid human-animal-plant figures with exaggerated breasts, buttocks and genitalia.

Wifredo Lam: Most renowned painter from Cuba

Wifredo Lam remains the most renowned painter from Cuba. His story, a testament to the human condition, is one of self-discovery, fueled by pivotal moments, a willingness to change and a transformative reminder from Pablo Picasso that heritage matters. He became a champion for Afro-Cuban culture, leaving behind a legacy that inspires artists to embrace their unique heritage.

The Wifredo Lam: Homecoming exhibition at Asia Society Hong Kong Center provides a wide panorama of Lam’s key artistic periods, including prints, personal memorabilia, and paintings.

Text & photos Martin Wray