“I could act as a Trojan horse that would spew forth hallucinating figures with the power to surprise,” Wifredo Lam said looking back on his career… “To disturb the dreams of the exploiters, a true picture has the power to set the imagination to work, even if it takes time.”
The EY Exhibition at Tate Modern not only bears witness to the growth of an artist, Wifredo Lam, but over eight-decades plots the larger course of post-war decolonisation which it underwrites. “Black magic, Vodou ceremonies, strange beasts and demons cavorting in swamps and forests,” as Alistair Sooke has taken some of Lam’s domains to be, can all be found here.
Gallery seven showcases a large triptych of paintings, ‘Nativity’ (1947), ‘The Wedding’ (1947), and ‘Belial, Emperor of the Flies’ (1948), inhabited by polymorphous symbolic figures. These works are simultaneously a part of, and apart from, a lineage to Picasso’s Guernica – both artists had powerful attachments to the Spanish Civil War. While some have called Lam’s mimicry a ‘fatal flaw’, the ‘ferocious, visionary quality’ that is clearly Lam’s own, is evident when surveying the 200 plus works collected here.
Born in 1902, the re-crossed history of a newly-independent Cuba is born out in Lam’s own heritage, to an African and Mestizo mother, and a father who had emigrated from China as a labourer. His initial modest scholarship to study at Madrid’s Real Academia de Bella Artes allowed him to nurture his prodigious talent. His honed, proportional self-portraiture of early 1926 is the exception to the career of chaos which follows. Acutely aware of his own scopophilic intensity, the emotional labour of his gaze passes into the graphite renderings of the baleful-looking Campesinos (1926) too.
During 1929 to 1941 Lam moved from Madrid to Barcelona, then from Paris to Marseille, forging life-long friendships, and experimenting with various styles and collaborators. Galleries three through six demonstrate the vivid alacrity of this white-hot decade. Individual fabulist reimaginings sit alongside futurist and folkloric collages. Created while waiting to embark a cargo ship that would leave France, the Collective Drawing (or Dessin collectif) is irreverent and striking – the result of contributions from André Breton, Victor Brauner, Oscar Dominguez, Max Ersnt, Jacques Hérold, Jacqueline Lamba, André Masson and of course Lam himself. It is collaborations such as this that can be overlooked in the narrow pursuit of some apparent “individual artistic essence”.
It is certainly easy to be hyperbolic about the extent of Lam’s legacy, or to claim he was happy to ‘rehash old ideas and motifs’ in his later years. This is not untrue, as the mixed efforts of his large brush paintings, which derive from Abstract Expressionism, demonstrate. However, there is something to note in what appears to be an adoption, or if you like, a colonisation-in-reverse, of the architectural blueprints of European Futurism. Enter galleries nine and ten and you might see what I mean.
As the Tate notes add, the extraordinary artists of Lam’s generation felt the ‘convergence between modernist movements on both sides of the Atlantic’ – the artistic earth shifted, and eventually ossified, around their creations. The most familiar of these include Pablo Picasso and the no-less pre-eminent, Alejo Carpentier. If the latter would coin ‘marvellous realism’ (‘lo real marvilloso’) as an expressive idiom of the New World against the ‘cold tricks’ of European surrealism, Picasso would prove inaugural to Lam’s consciousness-raising.
Lam’s son Eskil recalls: “There are no African masks or artefacts in the Caribbean, so in a way [my father] rediscovered his African roots when he came to Europe and met Picasso […] Picasso took this mask and told my father ‘you should be proud of this.’ Somewhat in bewilderment [my father] said, ‘why?’ ‘Because your ancestors did this.’… What Picasso really did was to empower him, to make him proud of where he came from.”
In a predicament common to the Caribbean’s returning artists, Lam’s departure from the metropole to an (un)reality separate from, or suspicious of, Western modernity, proved transformative in his world-outlook and sense of selfhood. Having been away from Cuba for eighteen years, his eyes became alert to its corruption, decadence, and unrest on his return in 1940. Lam was no stranger to the colourism of the region either, and would not have freely admitted to be black or Chinese descent.
To be aware of, and witness to, the Caribbean’s history of sexual and political violence are just some of the cargo housed by his art. Contemporaries with the New York artists who would turn to abstract expressionism, Lam’s stygian spaces do not retreat from sexual desire. Indeed Lam’s paintings pulsate with it. The erotic copulates with myth: bulbous breasts and buttocks of Cuban goddesses and spirits morph with leaves, horse heads, horns, and plant buds. These new embodiments of female sexuality accommodate the beliefs of Vodou and Santeria (a religion which draws on West-African Yoruba traditions as well as Catholicism), but also map out the attendant exploitation in the prostitution of poor Cuban women, particularly, poor black women.
Of special note is The Sombre Malembo, God of the Crossroads (1943), one of the first paintings to express Lam’s fascination with Santeria. Darkness, horns, and tartarian figures creep into a new style, recovering Afro-Cuban traditions that were submerged by colonial authorities. The active reshaping of inherited western forms by Caribbean artists, taken as a ‘creolisation’, between the old world and the new, between Catholicism and its Yoruban counter-lineages, is evident in Lam’s work.
The canvasses of works like The Eternal Present (An Homage to Alejandro Garcia Caturla) (1944) neither depict social realist struggle nor are they prone to easy statement-making. Here, hybrid figures stand beneath a canopy of palm-fronds. Almost without exception in the period post-1940, figures rarely stand in the singular. “I think…he said it himself,” Eskil adds, “he wanted to […] awaken in a people a sense of belonging or injustice that he could then act upon.”
In representing newness and insisting on active engagements from both old and new world observers, Lam ensured the perception of Cuban and post-colonial art would never be quite the same again. The Ey Exhibition is a real delight for anyone interested in trans-modernities, currents of artistic collaboration, and modern art.
The EY Exhibition runs at Tate Modern until 8th January 2017. Tickets are £16 or free for members. For more information visit the Tate website.