Wifredo Lam: Imagining New Worlds, a retrospective currently on view at Atlanta’s High Museum of Art, examines his relationship to literature. The formative work of the Cuban master was inspired by his encounters with the surrealist poets of Spain. By contrast, his late work inspired Caribbean poets.
The show opens with Lam’s paintings from a 15-year sojourn in Spain, when he was learning his craft and developing his signature style. Between 1923 and 1938, Lam befriended avant-garde Spanish writers, notably Rafael Alberti and Federico García Lorca, and found inspiration in their work.
The exhibition concludes with a series of 10 etchings from 1969 that, in a role reversal, inspired Aimé Césaire, the Martinique-born poet and one of founders of the Négritude movement that rejected the colonial framing of African identity.
“This is an understudied part of Lam scholarship,” says Elizabeth Goizueta, curator of the exhibition and a lecturer in the Department of Romance Language and Literature at Boston College, whose McMullen Museum of Art organized the show.
“My focus is on the narrative sense in Lam’s early work, “ Goizueta says, “on his collaboration with the poets and writers of the Spanish surrealist movement,” whose work expressed alienation and disillusionment after World War I and disavowed rationalism. That literary focus is also what set this exhibition apart from the Wifredo Lam in North America exhibition that was shown at the then-Miami Art Museum in 2008.
The imagery in Lam’s paintings often paralleled themes in Spanish literature. Composition I (1930) epitomizes the surrealism of his Spanish period. An eroticized female figure in foreground, two sailors in the background (one of them screaming), a bridge that leads to nowhere, a lone figure on bridge, the full moon: all echo Alberti’s imagery in his poem, The Uninhabited Body. So too does Lam’s Composition II (1931) provide a visual reading of Garcia Lorca’s poems from The Poet in New York.
The Spanish Civil War prompted Lam to go to Paris, where he met Picasso, who encouraged his development of a personal style. Much as Picasso had appropriated African masks, Lam incorporated images drawn from Afro-Cuban religions into his paintings. As World War II engulfed Europe, Lam made a circuitous trip home to Cuba.
Once there, Lam drew on his own multicultural heritage—his father was Chinese, his mother of African and Spanish descent — to create the canvases for which he is best known. They bridge European surrealism and Latin American magic realism, personified by the Cuban novelist Alejo Carpentier.
Lam’s signature style is a cross-cultural fusion of influences such as Afro-Cuban symbolism and Négritude, and incorporates figures from Santeria.
Le Sombre Malembo, Dieu du Carrefour (Dark Malembo, God of the Crossroads) from 1943 is a striking example of Lam reaching his stride with a personal iconography that incorporates not only his multicultural background but also the green physicality of his native island.
Lam juxtaposes his almost mythical depiction of the African slave port Malembo with the lushness of the Cuban landscape. The artist considered the paintings he made after returning to Cuba “an act of decolonization” — a weapon against the repression of blacks there.
Having such a large selection of Lam’s paintings, drawings and prints hanging together is one of the most welcome aspects of the current exhibition, which is drawn from European, Latin American and U.S. collections including the Pérez Art Museum and Miami collectors Ella Fontanals-Cisneros and Ramón and Nercys Cernuda.
Although Lam is regularly cited as a leading and influential modernist in art history books, that acclaim is not reflected on the walls of U.S. museums, due in large part to international politics.
Lam did visit and exhibit in the United States, but his Chinese ancestry prevented him from getting a residency visa to spend any extended time here as he did in Spain, notes the curator. That exclusion was repeated in later life because of his support for the Castro regime.
The current exhibition was organized before the recent thawing of U.S.-Cuban relations. One consequence of that timing was that the McMullen Museum was unable to borrow any of Lam’s works from Havana’s Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes, although Roberto Cobas Amate, curator of Cuban avant-garde art and of the Lam collection there, did contribute an essay to the catalog.
Nonetheless, Lam has influenced subsequent generations of artists, and the High Museum has paired the exhibition with works by two contemporary artists who have found inspiration in his work.
José Parlá, a Cuban-American artist who grew up in Miami and is now based in Brooklyn, made his first paintings on Miami’s walls, often under cover of darkness. Much like the well-traveled Lam, Parlá’s simulated walls of wood, plaster and paint reflect the urban chaos of New York, Miami, Berlin and Havana.
Atlanta-based artist Fahamu Pecou pushes the boundaries between fine art and popular culture through his blending of performance and traditional visual media. Pecou particularly focuses on the intersections of Négritude, hip-hop and West African spiritual cosmology.
At the museum, Parlá and Pecou collaborated on an installation that was conceived as an “altar to the imagination.” It investigates the influence of Santeria on Lam’s work as well as the religion’s impact on the artistic practice and personal lives of Parlá and Pecou.
Created on two intersecting walls, the works evokes the titular crossroads of Lam’s Malembo, and specifically the Santería spirit Elegguá, who guards the crossroads between the natural and supernatural worlds. By combining graffiti, abstraction and Afro-Cuban images similar to Lam’s, the two artists have not only paid homage to the Cuba’s foremost modern artist, but have also recognized his ongoing influence.
“Wifredo Lam: Imagining New Worlds” is on display at the High Museum of Art in Atlanta through May 24. For more information: www.high.org.