Wifredo Lam in his house in Havana, with a Bamana chi wara antelope headdress bought in 1946 in Paris, 1958
Photograph by Jesse A. Fernandez © F. Mazin

Wifredo Lam

Cuban Artist & Collector: Reclaiming African Symbolism

September 23, 2018 By: Leif Birger Holmstedt

"My painting is an act of decolonization not in a physical sense, but in a mental one."

Cuba, 1902–23

Wifredo Óscar de la Concepción Lam y Castilla grew up in Sagua La Grande in the province of sugar canes, Villa Clara. He was of mixed ethnic origin—his father, Yam Lam was a Chinese immigrant and his mother, Ana Serafina Castilla, was the daughter of a former Congolese slave and a Cuban father. His godmother was a Yoruba princess.

In Sagua La Grande, Wifredo was surrounded by many people of African descent that, in the same manner as his own family, combined Catholicism with revered African traditions. His godmother, who worked as a Santería minister, healer and shaman, introduced Wifredo to rites from the African Òrìṣà-religion that had been brought to Cuba from Yorubaland by Nigerian slaves. Later, Wifredo’s contact with African celebrations and spiritual practices turned out to have a profound influence on his artistic imagery.

In 1918, Wifredo was accepted into the Escuela Profesional de Pintura o Escultura Academia de San Alejandro. This residence, during which he participated in several exhibitions at the Salón de Bellas Artes, was crucial for his decision to become an artist.

Wifredo Lam
'Self-Portrait', 1926
© Archives SDO Wifredo Lam
Wifredo Lam
'Self-Portrait II', 1938
© Archives SDO Wifredo Lam
Wifredo Lam
'Self-Portrait III', 1938
Wifredo Lam obscured behind an African mask
© Archives SDO Wifredo Lam

Spain, 1923–38

In 1923, Wifredo was awarded a scholarship to study art in Europe. At age 21, he left Cuba, travelled to Madrid, and continued his artistic education with Fernando Álvarez de Sotomayor y Zaragoza, the manager of Museo del Prado and teacher to Salvador Dali.

His stay in Europe was originally planned to be of short, but he remained there for almost eighteen years.

In Madrid, he became involved in the ideas and movements of modern art. He spent many hours at the Museo del Prado where he studied the great masters of Spanish art—Velásquez and Goya. He was, however, more attracted to Bosch and Bruegel the Elder. Just like several of his European colleagues, Wifredo Lam was also attracted to the innovative elements of the then called ‘primitive’ art, what we now know today as classic and historical African art.

Wifredo Lam
'Mother and Child', 1939
© Archives SDO Wifredo Lam

In 1929, Wifredo Lam married his girlfriend Eva Sebastiana Piriz;

I had been struck by her great beauty. Slender, always dressed in black, olive skin, black hair and with deeply melancholic eyes.

A year later the marriage ended tragically—Eva and their newborn son, Wifredo Víctor, both died of tuberculosis. Serafina, Wifredo’s mother, writes him in twisting spindly letters;

Dearest son, with great sadness I received the news of the death of your poor Eva. It was a surprise…we didn’t believe that her sickness had been so advanced…we prayed for her health, God had other plans…Wifredo, take care of yourself and drink lots of fish oil because you know how that disease is very contagious and you being in contact with her, you should go to the doctor…That’s how it is Wifredo: to be the most disgraced and distressed is the burden we came to this Earth to bear.

Wifredo Lam subsequently expressed the deep pain of the loss of Eva and their son in many paintings with the title “Mother and son”. In this miserable situation, he also sought refuge among his Spanish friends who brought him into contact with several political organisations. In 1936, aided by his friend Faustino Cordón, he joined the Republican forces in the civil war against the fascist regime of Franco. He produced anti-fascist posters and participated in the struggle by working at a munitions plant. The human horrors of the civil war were the inspiration for Wifredo Lam’s great painting, “La Guerra Civil”.

France, 1938–41

When I arrived in Paris, after the fall of the Spanish Republic to the fascists, I began to paint what I felt most deeply […] this strange world started to flow out of me.

In 1938, Wifredo Lam left Spain with his wife-to-be, Helena Holzer, a German scientist of neurobiology, to settle in Paris. With a letter of recommendation from the sculptor Manolo Huguét, Wifredo Lam visited Picasso in his studio in Rue des Grands-Augustins—a visit that turned out to have a significant influence on Wifredo Lam’s further destiny. Picasso introduced him as his new ‘colleague’ to his friends, Braque, Matisse, Miró, Léger, Eluard, Leiris, Tzara, Khanweiler and Zervos. Wifredo Lam also met the famous art dealer Pierre Loeb, owner of Galerie Pierre in Paris, where Wifredo Lam had his first solo exhibition in 1939.

Wifredo Lam
'Nu Couché', 1939
© Archives SDO Wifredo Lam

Shortly before the Germans occupied Paris, Wifredo Lam and Helena Holzer again left the city and travelled through Bordeaux to Marseille, where many of his surrealist friends—Pierre Mabille, René Char, Max Ernst, Victor Brauner, Oscar Domínguez, André Masson and Benjamin Péret—had already gathered around André Breton in Villa Air-Bel.

Villa Air-Bel was a large country estate, a château, that had been rented by an American relief committee to be used as a temporary residence for intellectuals and political refugees that had to wait for exit visas since they feared the Vichy-government would extradite them to Nazi-Germany. While waiting for his visa, Wifredo Lam illustrated the André Breton poem, “Fata Morgana”, which was censored by the French Vichy-government and labelled revolutionary. Wifredo Lam was also focused on a series of Indian ink drawings that became a starting point for the imagery he would work on in the following years on Cuba.

On the Capitaine Paul-Lemerle, a converted freighter that sailed European war refugees to Martinique, André Breton, Wifredo Lam and Claude Lévi-Strauss, as well as 300 other refugees, left Marseille in 1941 to be transported to the French island in the Caribbean. On their arrival, they were arrested and imprisoned in Trois Îles. After a detention of forty days, Wifredo Lam was released and allowed to travel on to Cuba.

Helena Lam surrounded by the African and Oceanic art collection of Wifredo Lam, Havana, 1946
A Bamana chi wara headdress, Kota boho na bwete reliquary guardian figure, and a Dogon bombou-toro ritual vessel are displayed on the console table beneath Helena's portrait (1946) and Confidence; a Kota boho na bwete and a Dan mask hang over the sideboard; a Baule blolo bla female figure
is placed on the sideboard.
© Archives SDO Wifredo Lam

Cuba, 1941–51

After twenty years in Europe, Wifredo Lam again settled in Cuba. Here he found nourishment in the surroundings of his childhood and youth, and he immersed himself deeply into the artistic undergrowth. He rekindled a close connection to his sister Eloisa who, in great detail, explained to him about Afro-Cuban ritual ceremonies. This contact with Afro-Cuban culture developed his art further. He painted more than a hundred paintings, which made 1942 his most productive year during this Cuban period.

"Africa has not only been dispossessed of many of its people, but also of its historical consciousness… I have tried to relocate Black cultural objects in terms of their own landscape and in relation to their own world."

Baule Goli Glin Helmet Mask, Ivory Coast

André Breton, Paris (by 1925).
Pablo Picasso, Paris.
Marina Picasso (by descent from the above).
Jan Krugier, acquired from the above.
Image Courtsey Christie's

Subsequent years saw him show his works at various exhibitions in the United States. Among others, in 1944, Wifredo Lam showed his monumental painting “La Jungla”, The Jungle, at an exhibition in Galerie Pierre Matisse in New York. The subject was a symbiosis of male and female figures in a stunted forest of sugar canes—a fusion of human bodies, animals and plants with African masks for faces, where breasts and genitals were excessive and erotic. Together these elements obliquely address the history of slavery in colonial Cuba.

I name the piece “La Jungla”—intended to communicate a psychic state... in reference not to the jungles of Cuba (of which there are none) but to the internal turmoil and inherently surrealist Afro-Cuban experience.

The exhibition created quite the scandal, yet it gave Wifredo Lam his international breakthrough as an artist. “La Jungla” was bought by the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York, and it is often compared to Picasso’s “Guernica”, which hangs in Museo Reina Sofía in Madrid.

Africa has not only been dispossessed of many of its people but also of its historical consciousness … I have tried to relocate Black cultural objects in terms of their own landscape and in relation to their own world.

Before he visited Picasso in his studio in Rue des Grands-Augustins in 1938, Wifredo Lam already had an interest in the unfamiliar and alien in African and Oceanic masks and figures. However, after having been confronted with Picasso’s great collection at the studio where large a number of masks and figures were kept. A particular mask piqued Lam's curiousity—a Baule Goli-Glin mask depicting the head of a horse, standing upright and leaning against the back of an armchair.

That experience encouraged Lam's interest in anthropological objects. His interest was further stimulated by regular visits to the anthropological museum, Musée d’Homme and the art galleries of Paris—at one, the gallery of the famous art dealer Charles Ratton, Wifredo Lam acquired an excellent Baule figure. From the artist and collector Madeleine Rousseau, he is also reported to have bought several fine African and Oceanic sculptures.

Wifredo Lam
'The Jungle (La Jungla)', 1943
Oil on paper pasted on canvas, 239.4 x 229.9 cm
Image Courtesy The Museum of Modern Art, New York, 2015

"In 1938 [Wifredo Lam] had been particularly struck by a mask of a horse’s head in Picasso’s studio, but some years later wrote a letter in which he lamented how terrible it was to see these pieces being bought by people who had no clue about where they had come from, and who showed them in a way that stripped them of any context. In the same way that black bodies had a history of being exploited, he saw this as an exploitation of the black soul. He wanted to give his objects some dignity, so he put them all together, in conversation, speaking to each other."

—Eskil Lam || Tate Etc. Issue 38

At the end of the 1940s, Wifredo Lam divided his time between Europe, Havana and New York. He enjoyed the company of such artists as Noguchi, Hare, Motherwell, Pollock and the Dane, Asger Jorn.

In the autumn of 1946, Paris was still marked by the drama of the world war. In Palais de Luxembourg, peace is under debate. The Lettriste-movement makes a scandal, the Existentialists put on a show, we, the Surrealists, organise the international surrealist exhibition, and Oscar Domínguez is sentenced and excluded from the movement. It was in this hysterical climate that my friend André Breton introduced me to Asger Jorn at Café de Flore on Boulevard St. Germain des Prés. Breton had brought me there to argue with a Belgian group of revolutionary surrealists.

After the introduction, Jorn frequently visited Wifredo Lam at his hotel in Rue Jacob, where they discussed subjects relating to art and politics, among other things. During those hard times, when nothing could be found, Jorn brought materials such as pencils, Indian ink and paper to Wifredo, so that his work could continue.

From 1947, Wifredo Lam went down new roads in the development of his imagery—a pronounced presence of esoteric elements and a link to the influence from his anthropological collection of Oceanic and African objects. His reputation as an artist had spread internationally. It was now possible to read articles and reviews of his exhibitions around the world in prestigious publications.

Wifredo Lam
'La Fiancée de Kiriwina', 1949
Oil on Canvas
© Archives SDO Wifredo Lam
Wifredo Lam
'Zambezia, Zambezia', 1950
Oil on Canvas
© Archives SDO Wifredo Lam
Wifredo Lam
'Umbral', 1950
Oil on Canvas
© Archives SDO Wifredo Lam

Cuba, Italy, Sweden and France, 1952–82

After divorcing Helena Holzer in 1951, Wifredo Lam again settled in Paris, where he met the Swedish artist Lou Laurin—they were married in 1960. At the same time as he kept a close connection to the Cuban art scene, during the 1950s Wifredo Lam became ever more involved in European art movements—he was especially close to CoBrA—and Italian avant-garde artists.

In 1954, Wifredo Lam, as well as other artists such as Karel Appel, Corneille, Sergio Dangelo, Lucio Fontana and Roberto Matta, was invited by Asger Jorn to participate in an international meeting on ceramics in Albissola that he had arranged with Enrico Baj at the local potter Tullio Mazzotti’s workshop. Wifredo was in Cuba and could not participate but he visited Albissola about ten days after the meeting.

Wifredo Lam
'Second Adventivity', 1969
Etching and Aquatint on Paper
© Archives SDO Wifredo Lam

Wifredo Lam became so enamoured by the atmosphere of this area that he later would buy a house and build a studio with a view of the Mediterranean. During the last decades of his life, he would spend most of his time here, working. At the pottery workshops of Mazzotti, Bianco and Salino, Wifredo Lam would exchange ideas, views and experiments in the art of ceramics with his friends Asger Jorn, Enrico Baj and Lucio Fontana.

Several private photos from the first half of the 1970s bear witness to Wifredo’s studio housing many historical sculptures, mainly from West Africa and Papua New Guinea. In his private residence, he was surrounded by a large collection of Baule and Dan masks—most had been acquired in the early 1970s at Milanese L’Uomo e l’Arte in Milan while visiting Giorgio Upiglio, a master printer at the Grafica Uno workshop.

Wifredo Lam with his collection of African and Oceanic art, in his house in Albissola, 1971
© Archives SDO Wifredo Lam
Wifredo Lam surrounded by his collection of African and Oceanic sculptures in the music room in Albissola, 1974
Reflected in the mirror are the paintings At the End of the Night 1969 and The Abalochas Dance for Dhambala, the God of Unity 1970
© Archives SDO Wifredo Lam

Wifredo Lam was born in 1902 in Sagua La Grande, Cuba and died in Paris in 1982. Wifredo Lam is represented at a large number of museums and art collections. He was awarded the Guggenheim International Award in 1964.

Leif Birger Holmstedt

ÌMỌ̀ DÁRA contributor, Leif Birger Holmstedt is a designer, collector, and author of books including 'African Masks' Borgen 2003 and 'Magic Masks and Figures from Greenland' Borgen 2008. Leif Birger Holmstedt has also published over fifty articles, and has curated exhibitions at the Brandts Museum in Odense including 'Robert Jacobsen's Universe' (1991), 'Corneille's African Face' (1994), and 'Masks, Power and Magic. Art from the Marc Leo Felix Collection' (1997).

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