Modernism from Afro-America: Wilfredo Lam

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Clifford has remarked: 'Perhaps there's no return for anyone to a native land -only field notes for its reinvention.'16 The work of the Cuban artist henceforth is an achievement that can be seen in this perspective, related to negritude as conscious and neological construction of a black paradigm. On the island the painter rediscovered his cultural universe as a personal artistic universe. The return occurred at the right moment, at a time when he was prepared to do it given the evolution of his interests. It was a fruitful connection at the right time. Fascinated by African and 'primitive' elements thanks to modern art, he had begun to give outward expression to 'African' and 'primitive' aspects of himself. This process was defined through his direct contact with Afro-Cuban traditions. In Cuba, as Ortiz writes, 'the Afroid world is in Lam and in all his environment': it is not some diffuse feeling, a dream, a sense of longing or something in a museum.17 The Cuban folklore specialist Lydia Cabrera played a central role in this process, when she helped familiarize Lam with the myths, liturgies and representations of that world. Lam was also affected by the light and nature. He had come, as Carpentier said, from a 'fixed' world to another kind of world, 'one of symbiosis, metamorphosis, confusion, vegetable and telluric transformations'.18 But, once again, I should like to emphasize that the key to all these discoveries lies in the fact of his anagnorisis1 of himself as a 'Caribbean man' by someone trained as a modernist in Europe, without contradictions and giving expression to the various facets implicit in this new experience.
From 1942 - when he returned to Cuba - his works became the vehicle for his own, definitive kind of expression, the first vision ever of modern art from the standpoint of Africa within Latin America. There were formal changes in these works, with the prevalence of a figuration that, although indebted to Cubism, distanced itself from the analytical breaking down of forms, or their synthetic reduction, and moved towards invention, with the objective of communicating, rather than strictly representing, a mythology of the Caribbean. There is a baroque gathering of natural and fantastic elements in these works, woven into a visual and semiotic texture (which has been decodified by Navarro) whose message is the unity of life, a vision characteristic of the Afro-Cuban traditions, where everything is interconnected because everything - gods, energies, human beings, animals, plants, minerals - is full of mystical force and depends and acts on everything else.19 In this sense many of Lam's paintings could be compared to the ngangas [shaman priest] of the Palo Monte religion, the recipients of power that structure sticks, leaves, earth, human and animal remains, iron, stones, signs, objects, spirits and deities into a kind of summary of the cosmos.
Along with this integrated vision or implicit in it, Lam's art, with its fusion of the terrible and the beautiful, the fertile and the malignant, vitality and destruction, embodies a universe that is not regulated by the polarity of good and evil, light and darkness, of the Jewish Christian tradition. It is consonant with the plurality of Sudanese polytheism and the traditional Bantu religions, to which the dual conception so dear to the West is totally foreign.
Lam's painting is a 'primitive' modern cosmogony, a recreation of the world centred in the Caribbean, although it uses the devices of Western art and the space opened up by it. It is a story of genesis, of the proliferation of life, of universal energy. Ortiz speaks of 'living natures': the term alludes to a genre established by the Western pictorial tradition (still life), which Lam uses as a reference or artistic structure and at the same time transforms, because in the world view implicit in his art nothing is dead but only in metamorphosis, because everything is full of an energetic spiritual presence.20 In this way Lam came to create Awakening of Still Life in 1944.
There is also in his discourse a relationship with Eleggua. This god (the Brazilian Exu, the Yoruba Eshu-Elegbara, the Ewe-Fon Legba) is the only one whose basic image was used almost literally by Lam in nearly all his pictures. Eleggua is the 'trickster', the principle of uncertainty, a diachronic figure of change, in opposition to Orula-Ifa, the principle of structure and accumulated wisdom. Eleggua is the master of doors and crossroads, he opens and closes everything but is unpredictable and mischievous.21 The mutant sense of Lam's painting, where everything seems to change into something unexpected, might be related to this god. Lam's art is also a metamorphosis, 'a praise of osmosis', as he titled one of his paintings. There is also a similarity with Eleggua in the displacement of vision brought about by this art, as a fundamental change in itself and as the cultural crossroads that it depicts. This new meaning was the result of a different objective and methodology, which introduced changes in language without the radical invention of a new language. Picasso and many modern artists sought inspiration in African masks and statues, essentially to achieve a formal renovation of Western art, unaware of the context of these objects and their meanings and functions. Lam discovered African and 'primitive' art in Picasso, and began to use it in the same way. However, under the drive of Surrealism, his own personal world became activated in a way that was to determine a more internal manipulation of those forms. As a modern artist Lam displaced the focus from forms to meanings, in a coherent, natural and spontaneous manner, something that had never been achieved before in modern art.
The 'primitive' contents of other cultures are thus introduced into Western painting, giving it a new life. However, being centred in different experiences and perspectives, they also inaugurate the long journey towards its possible multifaced transformation - as meta-culture of the contemporary - within the complex contradiction of postcolonial developments. Lam filled Cubism with the meaning that the movement had ignored in its morphological use of African art, a meaning that originated in the fulfilment of religious functions. If we compare an 'African' figure by Picasso and one by the 'Picasso-period' Lam of 1938-40 with any figure (even similar to these) by the 'Cuban' Lam, we can see that the former are geometrical human figures, whereas the latter are mythological entities that are almost never fully individualized. It is not that the painter resemanticized the African masks, endowing them with their original meanings. There is no strict quotation of specific kinds of masks, given the degree of decomposition, mixing and processing of the sources (although some, such as ihegbon, can still be recognized). The intertextuality here is one of genetics and meaning. Lam was inspired by the semiotic imagination of the masks in an attempt to achieve for himself, and within the context of a more personal imagery, what those masks sought: the construction of something fantastic and natural, which was part of an environment and a conception of the world. It was an abstract approximation, through the necessarily different resources and functions of easel painting and modern Western art, to the mystical sense that the masks endeavoured to express in their contexts. This approach helped him express his vision from within himself and from the African dimension of the Americas.
There is no precise encoding in Lam either, in spite of the fact that often his painting is described as a set of symbols. Lam himself said: 'I do not tend to use an exact symbology.'22 His reference to Afro-Cuban religious and cultural complexes is always indirect. Very few elements can be identified, except for the effigy of Eleggua, already noted. Yet not even in this case does the figure appear explicitly related to the powers, myths, rites or ceremonial space of this deity, except at a very general level. This is true even when the titles of paintings refer to specific gods and altars, which would remain totally unrecognizable for any believer, since reinvention takes precedence over description. A stricter symbolic codification appears only in a few large oilworks from the second half of the 1940s, such as Eternal Presence, The Wedding, Belial and Annunciation, which are also characterized by a greater naturalism in the figuration and by their Expressionist aggression.23 Lam merely seeks to transmit, through the tropological devices of modern art, a world view conditioned by African elements alive in his original culture, a general mystical sense that proceeds from them.
This change of vision lies in the internal presence within the culture of the Caribbean of certain general traits of the African conscience: its religious philosophies, its world views, its mythological thought and ethno-psychologies. An integrated opposition between aristocratic academicism and a Dionysian 'primitivism' seems to become explicit in his works. In an ink drawing from 1943, for instance, a beautiful woman in the style of a classical Picasso looks into a mirror that reflects the image of a mythological being. Such pieces are metaphors for the kind of Third World criticism of the West that is an integral part of his artistic proposal. Interiorized and dissolved traces of this African conscience have been absorbed into the sensibility and imagination of the Caribbean and its special symbolic world. For example, there is the natural way in which mythological thought operates in the Caribbean within the modern conscience, without any contradiction - a feature that extends from Bastide's 'principe de coupure' down to 'magical realism'.24 It is not a question of the survival of myths, but rather a natural inclination towards a mythologizing process characteristic of 'primitive' thought, this time in contemporary 'cultured' creators, capable of focusing the world through the structures of mythological thought, and reflecting a reality where magic and myth are operative aspects within contemporary problems.
The displacement that occurs in Lam was sometimes proclaimed in a polemical manner. His painting is often very aggressive towards bourgeois good taste, as he himself admitted when he said he wanted to create 'hallucinating figures that can cause surprise and trouble the minds of the exploiters'.25 Such an ingenuous programme can only be understood in a figurative sense, as a posture within his own art, as poetics. He had a preference for certain aggressive forms such as thorns, horns and teeth (which sometimes filled an entire picture, as in Escolopendras), grotesque shapes alluding to repulsive animals, snake-like forms, gros orteil, like enormous feet and certain deformities. This attempt to epater le bourgeois in the Surrealist manner was essentially a Third World offensive against established taste and, in the final analysis, against the 'aristocratic' Western aesthetic. But Lam acted from within the context of modernity, and even classicism, which he never abandoned, but rather reoriented into an opposing dialectic. The anticolonial cut of the scissors held by the character of The Jungle is not an attempt at a Utopian break, but a turning and a synthesis that might be endorsed by modernity, thus creating a non-Western space within the Western tradition, decentralizing it, transforming and de-Europeanizing it. In fact, Lam's painting, especially that of his 'Cuban' period, has few decorative elements, despite its great beauty. Even today his pictures shock a lot of people. The irony of the fact that the cultured 'exploiters' now hang his pictures in their drawing rooms is rather like the problem posed by the glass that is 'half full' or 'half empty', situations that are both reifications and infiltrations. Such ambivalence and contradictions are part of the postcolonial culture games, particularly those of the immigrant in the power centres, who is absorbed and at the same time transforms from within.
The polemical synthesis is evident in the very concept of certain works: for example, in those dated between 1949 and 1961 that show women sitting in poses reminiscent of academic paintings, with their hands arranged in a conventional expression of 'good manners'. But these elegant ladies have been painted with the most 'savage' mixture of masks, tails, horns, manes and thorns, with all those kinds of animal and plant references that enabled Lam to create his mythological figures. These pieces can be seen almost as an allegory of Lam's work and of his aesthetic stand.
We are faced with a pioneering endeavour, afflicted by the contradictions of its own strategy. The permanence of a certain exoticism typical of the astonished Western vision of a piece, particularly among the Surrealists, which extends to everything 'primitive', aestheticized as 'mystery', 'magic', 'night', 'darkness', 'fantastic', etc. The work, however, is not itself contradictory, for it assumes the complex contradiction of postcolonial processes - evident in the artist's life - so that he may, together with other Latin American modernists, initiate the long journey towards a possible de-Eurocentralizing of Western culture, in the sense of making it a meta-culture of the contemporary. Just like Eleggua, Lam's work is at the crossroads.

1 Etiemble, Essais de Litterature (Vraiment) Generate (Paris, 1974), p. 11.

2 See also Gerardo Mosquera, ' "Primitivismo" y "contemporaneidad" en nuestros artistas jovenes', La revista del Sur, Malmo, year 11, nos. 3-4, 1985, pp. 52-5; and J Yau, 'Please, Wait by the Coatroom: Wifredo Lam in the Museum of Modern Art', Arts Magazine, New York, no. 4, December 1988, pp. 56-9.

3 Quoted by Max-Pol Fouchet in Wifredo Lam (Barcelona, 1984), p. 31.

4 Mosquera, El diseno se definio en Octubre (Havana, 1989), pp. 27-37.

5 Primitive Art (Franz Boas) is dated 1927; Revista de Antropofagia was founded the following year, with the first number including Oswald de Andrade's Manifiesto Antropofago. For a critical examination of his programme, see Z Nunes, Os males do Brasil: Antropofagia e a questao da roca (Rio de Janeiro, 1990).

6 'Centre', 'periphery' and 'Third World' are all controversial and problematic terms. I am using them to refer to historically established situations of domination, without any hierarchical or discriminatory implications.

7 Nelly Richard, 'La centro-marginalidad postmoderna', paper presented to the Symposium on Artistic and Cultural Identity in Latin America, Sao Paulo, 1991.

8 Geeta Kapur, 'Tradition y contemporaneidad en las Bellas Artes del Tercer Mundo', in Debate abierto: Tradition y contemporaneidad en la pldstica del Tercer Mundo, Third Havana Biennial, 1989, p. 12.

9 The term 'Caribbean' is now used in ethnological theory to refer to a paradigm opposed to monocultural narrative; see James Clifford, The Predicament of Culture: Twentieth Century Ethnography, Literature, and Art (Cambridge and London, 1988), pp. 14-15.

10 Mosquera, 'Tercer Mundo y cultura occidental', Lapiz, Madrid, year VI, no. 58, April 1989, pp. 24-5.

11 Through painters like Gorky and Pollock, less by means of Surrealist automatism than by its 'primitive' sensibility.

12 On this crucial aspect of his life, see A Nunez Jimenez, Wifredo Lam (Havana, 1982); and Max-Pol Fouchet, op. cit.

13 For the development of Lam's painting, see J M Noceda and R Cobas Amate, Wifredo Lam desconocido, catalogue of the Fourth Havana Biennial, 1991, pp. 155-60.

14 Jose Lezama Lima, 'Homenaje a Rene Portocarrero', in La Cantidad Hechizada (Havana, 1970), p. 380.

15 So might we say in an allusion to Alejo Carpentier, who uses Lam as a paradigm of his concept of the marvellous-real in his prologue to El reino de este mundo (1959), where the idea is expressed for the first time.

16 Clifford, op. cit., p. 173.

17 Fernando Ortiz, 'Las visiones del cubano Lam', Revista Bimestre Cubana, Havana, vol. LXXI, nos. 1, 2 and 3, July-December 1950, p. 269. This text is one of the fundamental interpretations of the painter's work, and a fine example of the baroque in Cuban prose.

18 Alejo Carpentier, 'Un pintor de America: El cubano Wifredo Lam', El Nacional, Caracas, 1947, reproduced in the catalogue to the exhibition Exposicion antologica "Homenaje a Wifredo Lam", 1902-1982 (Madrid: Museum of Contemporary Art), pp. 77-8.

19 Desiderio Navarro, 'Lam y Guillen: Mundos comunicantes', in Sobre Wifredo Lam (Havana, 1986); 'Leer a Lam', in the same author's Ejercicios del criteria (Havana, 1988).

20 Ortiz, op. cit.,p. 259.

21 On Eleggua, see Roger Bastide, 'Immigration et metamorphoses d'un dieu', Cahiers Internationaux de Sociologie (Paris, 1956); L Cabrera, El monte (Havana, 1954); Juana Elbein dos Santos, 'Exu Bara, Principle of Individual Life in the Nago System', in La notion de personne en Afrique noire (Paris, 1973); and Jean Wescott, 'The Sculpture and Myths of Eshu-Elegba', Africa, London, year XXXII, no. 4, October 1962.

22 See the interpretation of Eternal Presence by Suzanne Garrigues, 'Cultura y revolucion en la eterna presencia de Wifredo Lam', in Plastica del Caribe (Havana, 1988), pp. 183-92.

23 Quoted by Max-Pol Fouchet, op. cit., p. 68. For a different interpretation, see Alvaro Medina, 'Lam y Shango', in Sobre Wifredo Lam, op. cit., pp. 26-62.

24 Bastide, 'Le principe de coupure et le comportement afro-bresilien', anales do XXXI Congresso Internacional de Americanistas, Sao Paulo, 1955, pp. 493-504.

25 Cited by Max-Pol Fouchet, op. cit., p. 31.

1Anagnorisis: discovery leading to resolution of plot in literature, especially Greek tragedy, the principal character’s discovery or acknowledgment of some fact that leads to the resolution of the plot (Encarta online dictionary)

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