Modernism from Afro-America: Wilfredo Lam



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Note to students: Gerardo Mosquera is a Cuban art critic and theorist. He will use names and terms that may be unfamiliar to you. I recommend quick Google searches. Look up Eurocentrism. What is Mosquera’s viewpoint on Wifredo Lam? What is his thesis? How does he establish it in this article? Be able to refer to specific facts.

Modernism from Afro-America: Wilfredo Lam

Gerardo Mosquera


[From: Gerardo Mosquera, ed., Beyond the Fantastic: Contemporary Art Criticism from Latin America (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1996) pp. 121-132.]


Everything is gonna be all right (Bob Marley)

The history of art has, to a large extent, been a Eurocentric story. It is a construction ‘made in the West’ that excludes, diminishes, decontextualizes and banishes to bantustans a good part of the aesthetic-symbolic production of the world. It is becoming increasingly urgent - especially for Latin Americans - to deconstruct it in search of more decentralized, integrative, contextualized and multidisciplinary discourses, based on dialogue, hybridization and transformation, open to an intercultural understanding of the functions, meanings and aesthetics of that production and its processes. Some time ago Etiemble invalidated ‘any theory which is based exclusively on European phenomena’, and his remark has a tinge of urgency in our field.1
This article follows the above guidelines. It tries to interpret the work of Wilfredo Lam (1902 – 1982). from Africa in the Americas. Since Lam was a paradigmatic artist of Latin American modernism, such an analysis could be extended to a reading of modern art in Latin America from Latin America.
I want to look at the work of this Cuban painter less as a product of Surrealism or in terms of the presence of ‘primitive’, African or Afro-American elements in modern art, than as a result of Cuban and Caribbean culture and as a pioneering contribution to the role of the Third World in the contemporary world.2 It is a change of viewpoint rather than a different reading. Lam’s cultural sources have been fully recognized, although they have always been subordinated to Western avant-garde art; they have never been examined from the point of view of their own effect on that art, in terms of their own particular construction of contemporary ‘high’ culture. The displacement to which I am referring means, for example, that the emphasis would no longer be placed on the intervention of these cultural elements in Surrealism; rather, this movement would be seen as a space in which those elements are given expression outside their traditional sphere, transformed into agents of the avant-garde culture by themselves. This is what Lam must have meant when he said that he was a ‘Trojan horse’.3
This change of perspective does not correspond to a binary displacement. On the contrary, it implies recognition of Western culture as characteristic of the world today, through the global expansion of industrial capitalism, which for the first time integrated the world into a global system centred in Europe.4 Many elements of this culture have ceased to be ‘ethnic’ and have become internationalized as intrinsic components of a world shaped by the development of the West. Art itself, as a self-sufficient activity based on aesthetics, is also a product of the Western culture exported to the rest of the world. Its complete definition, moreover, was given only at the end of the eighteenth century. The traditional art of other cultures, as well as that of the West from other epochs, was a different production, determined by functions of a religious, representational or commemorative nature. The current art of such cultures is not the result of an evolution in traditional art: the concept itself was inherited from the West through colonialism.
This new approach to Lam does not imply non-recognition of his academic training and the influence of Picasso and Surrealism, or mean that we no longer consider him as a participant in the modern movement. He himself once surprised me during an interview when he showed me a picture of a work, which was clearly African in appearance, and commented: ‘You need to have seen a lot of Poussin to do this.’ Although the tension of ‘Who eats whom?’ is more or less implicit in any intercultural relationship, its processes, even in a relationship based on domination, are rather in fact those of give and take, as Fernando Ortiz has said. The active role of the receiver of foreign elements, who selects and adapts them to new ends, was stated a long time ago in anthropology by Boas, Lowie, Kroeber and Herskovits, among others.
Curiously enough, almost simultaneously, the Brazilian modernists had proposed as a programme the selective ‘cannibalism of difference’.5 It was a difficult enterprise - heralding postmodernism - since it was not carried out in a neutral context but in one of domination, with a praxis that tactically assumes the contradictions of dependency and postcolonial deformations.
The difficulties are many. The reverse of exclusion and silence is tokenism. The centres have an enormous capacity for reifying dissidence.6 Even though postmodernity introduces a heterogeneous diversification in the centre-periphery and hegemony-subordination oppositions, it was imposed and controlled by the centre, reproducing its domination. The centre, disguised as relativism, ‘threatens to supplant the periphery in its alternative role’, as Richard has pointed out, and to deprive it of oppositional force by integration.7 The postmodern interest in otherness is, once again, Eurocentric, a move from the dominator towards the dominated: the ‘other’ is always us. The danger arises that we may deliberately make ourselves ‘other’ in an attempt to satisfy the Western neo-exoticism. In all events, the subordinate cultures must exploit for themselves the possibilities offered by this new situation and the rhetorics of decentralization. One of the unavoidable challenges, more postcolonial than postmodern, is the transformation to their advantage of the dominant culture, de-Eurocentralizing it without depriving it of its capability for contemporary action.
Despite the prevailing structures of domination, the breakdown of totalization that this implies may be, as Kapur suggests, a consequence rather than a description of 'a realigned universe' by the praxis of societies hitherto totally displaced.8 This praxis does not consist in a return to a past that predates the globalization brought about by Western expansion, but of the construction of contemporary culture - the ability to act hic et nunc [here and now] - from a plurality of perspectives.
The intercultural dialogue implicit in Lam's work is an example of the advantageous use of 'ontological' diversity in the ethnogenesis of the new Latin American nationalities, of which the Caribbean is paradigmatic.9 Born as a result of Creole-oriented, hybridizing processes, these nationalities are part of the Western trunk, although they are also modulated from within by very active non-Western ingredients. European culture lies at their origins and is not something foreign, as it might be in Africa or Asia, divided as their countries are between their old traditional culture and that imposed by colonialism. Lam could paint in the academic, Cubist or Surrealistic style within a familiar tradition, even as 'second mark'. His contribution was to make a qualitative turn and base his art on those elements of African heritage that are alive in Cuban culture. To some extent his work reproduces the plurality characteristic of the Caribbean, centring it on the African component, which determines the profile of the region. He constructs identity by assuming what is diverse from the non-Western angle, providing a rich response to the endemic problems of identity in Latin America, so often lost between Euro-North American mimesis, repudiation of the West, the utopia of a 'cosmic race', or the nihilism of finding itself in the midst of chaos.
This turn in the interpretation of Lam is a response to a new orientation of the discourses that is taking place from the periphery towards the centre in which the former ceases to be a reservoir of tradition, leading to a multifocal, multiethnic decentralization of 'international' culture, along with the strengthening of local developments.10 These processes encourage the dismantling of the history of art as a totalizing and teleological paradigm of Western art, the need for which I noted earlier.
It is surprising that art critics and historians have not seen Wifredo Lam as the first artist to offer a vision from the African element in the Americas in the history of gallery art. This fact was an undeniable landmark and was the essential achievement of Lam, much more important than what may have been his 'Americanist' renovation of Surrealism, Cubism, abstract Expressionism or modernism in general.11

Furthermore, what Lam did for modernism was to provide it with a new range of meanings, multiplying its scope and using it to turn its perspective within itself without contradicting it but rather appropriating it, recycling, adapting, resemanticizing. In this sense he was also the forerunner of the heterodox challenge to Western monism, through readjustment rather than rejection, which is now spontaneously developing along the periphery.


If the Africans participated in the integration of the Caribbean cultures, many expressions of the latter, although not related to African traditions or themes, nor directly in contact with the popular sectors dominated by blacks and their customs, may have some African chromosome encompassing particular features and tastes that helped determine the particular Caribbean identity. This term, beyond its purely geographical sense, has in practice extended southwards and towards the Pacific to refer to the internal presence in the culture of decisive elements of African origin.
In 'cultured' art we can see, from modern times onwards, certain rhythms, colours, lines, accents and structures frequent in those works whose Caribbean character is strongly evident. It is very possible that the African origin has played a highly active role in the emergence of these features - not so much in stylistic terms, but as the substantial presence of African cultural elements at the heart of their structure. Less in terms of the development of any material expression of such a culture, than through a Promethean intervention of its conscience; that is, through the direct intervention of the spiritual culture of Africa - with its world views, values, orientations, modes of thought and customs - in the ethnogenesis of the Caribbean and, by extension, in the forms in which the new culture is identified and recognized. Wilfredo Lam was the first artist in whom the presence of African culture appears in its own right as a decisive factor of expression. This was the result of a complex process. The son of a Cantonese immigrant and a mulatta, Lam grew up in Sagua la Grande, where his mother's family, native to that region, must have had a strong influence on his development. His godmother was a priestess in the chapter of Santa Barbara (Shango), which still exists in the town, located in a region with a strong Afro-Cuban tradition. Although Lam was not initiated into santeria he did grow up in contact with it and in an environment marked by African traditions.12 Even if this had not been the case, the African element, to a larger or lesser extent, is present throughout the Caribbean: it is an essential feature of its culture and the Afro-Cuban tradition is familiar to everyone.
When Lam left Cuba in 1923 he was not seeking the Paris of the avant-garde movement, but the Spain of the Academy. There he acquired a classical training and earned his living with portraits. Towards the end of the 1920s he produced some works within the trend of Spanish Surrealism, tinged with academicism. In Paris, where he arrived in 1938 because of the Spanish Civil War, he consolidated himself as a late modernist, with the support of Picasso. His painting from 1938 to 1940, although based to a large extent on African masks and geometry, was reminiscent of the style of the artist from Malaga and, in general, of the School of Paris: as a formal resource in the first place, within a 'brew' already developed by the latter, an epigonal language made up of a combination of ingredients (synthetic Cubism, Matisse, Klee, etc.).13 At that time he also began to develop a passion for the traditional art of Africa and of other 'primitive' peoples (although it has been said that this interest was already present when he was in Spain, without having at that time any influence on his work). It was such an important discovery for Lam that he became a permanent collector of such pieces.
In discussions on the Picasso-Lam intertextuality the emphasis is usually placed on the turn of the century 'black' Picasso, to the detriment of pictures of the beach at Dinard (very different, considered as his most Surrealist works), and a number of oilworks and drawings from 1937-8, that is, one of the lines along which he was working when he met the Cuban. It is symptomatic that the features that most attracted Lam to Picasso would subsequently become, after 'mixing', decisive in his own painting: the African element, and deformation as fable-making. Picasso was interested in African art in terms of geometry, as a constructive synthesis of the human image. His most Expressionist or fable-like works were based less directly on African geometry, which inspired colder and more abstract-oriented works. In Lam there emerged a kind of link between both elements, a process that was to lead to his own personal kind of expression. It occurred in France, in works dating from 1940, such as Portrait, Homme-Femme and Symbiosis (the last two titles are significant in terms of what the works intend to communicate - the unity of existence - as we shall see below) and from 1941, such as his illustrative drawings for Breton's Fata Morgana. In these works the poetics that was to characterize him henceforth is already apparent. This evolution was undoubtedly connected to his relationship with the Surrealists and their fascination with tribal cultures, although Lam, a loner owing to his heterodox background, with its different worlds and poetics, never actually joined the movement. Nevertheless, he began to employ features valued by the Surrealistic visual imagery, such as double eyes, and adopted the pictorial figuration of Julio Gonzalez, which was to become the basis of his own figuration. He tended to present mythological, fantastic and yet more carnal figures than his earlier schematized characters from Afro-Cuban geometry. He was interested in the African mask less as a lesson in synthesis - its morphological teaching - than as an inventive exploit for shaping the supernatural - its mytho-poetical and expressive teaching. Unlike other religious forms of representation, the mask does not simply embody the sacred: it must personify it, make it a moving presence, a physical entity that can be seen and felt. Lezama Lima said that 'the mask is the permanence of the supernatural order in the transitory'.14 It depicts the supernatural as something natural, it makes real what is wondrous.15 Its design has required enormous amounts of imagination striving towards the personification of this acting fantastic.
At the time of his arrival in Cuba, Lam seems to have moved towards his final poetics in the midst of many and numerous displacements. The cultural mood introduced by Surrealism had encouraged him to express his own world, the world of his culture, in an exercise of modernity. His arrival in Cuba marked his encounter with that world in reality, and its overflowing into painting. This arrival did not produce any sense of astonishment at the tropics, but a feeling of belonging. It was the confirmation of, and final encounter with, his own space. It was a 'retour au pays natal', in the sense of the moving poem by Aime Cesaire.



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