"My return to Cuba meant, above all, a great stimulation of my imagination, as well as the exteriorization of my world," Lam recounted of his homecoming in 1941. "I responded always to the presence of factors which emanated from our history and our geography, tropical flowers, and black culture." His paintings from this period viscerally evoke the hybrid, vernacular culture of the New World, assimilating African, European, and indigenous sources within a new iconography of the Americas. "Fifty-percent Cartesian and fifty-percent savage" by his own account, Lam drew upon his dual heritage (Chinese and African) as he embarked on a new body of work stimulated by his re-encounter with what he termed "la cosa negra." Filtered through post-Cubist and Surrealist forms, the figures that emerged in his paintings of the 1940s and 1950s--signally, the femme cheval, or horse-headed woman--speak suggestively to the syncretic universe that he met in Cuba.
Lam's iconic femme cheval images first appeared in the Fata Morgana drawings (1940-41), but their evolved expression in the paintings made between 1947 and 1950 marks the apotheosis of their development. A personification of ritual possession in the Afro-Cuban religion of Lucum, or Santería, which Lam had studied as a child with his godmother, the femme cheval manifests the lush carnality of the feminine body and its supernatural powers. "Seduced by the body of woman as a symbol of fecundity and origin, the figure turns into one possessed by the spirits of the dead," Charles Merewether has explained. "Rather than seeking to civilize and colonize the body, Lam sought in his painting to display its power to fascinate, seduce, and disrupt our perception of the Afro-Cuban world." The femme cheval strikes a coyly seductive pose in La rose zombie, her body suggestively reared up on its haunches as she faces the viewer, revealing her breasts and a long mane that drapes, almost like a mantilla, across her shoulder. Her tapering, equine head is superimposed with an Elegua devotional head, conflating gender, race, and ritual in a deconstruction of female beauty, mesmerizingly erotic even in its state of animalic possession.
Abby McEwen, Assistant Professor, University of Maryland, College Park
1 Wifredo Lam, quoted in Lowery Stokes Sims, Wifredo Lam and the International Avant-Garde, 1923-1982 (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2002), 34-5.
2 Charles Merewether, "At the Crossroads of Modernism: A Liminal Terrain," in Wifredo Lam: A Retrospective of Works on Paper (New York: Americas Society, 1992), 24.