Like numerous artists escaping the advancing chaos and devastation that a world war would unleash, Wifredo Lam fled Paris for the Mediterranean city of Marseille in the summer of 1940. There he joined others fleeing to safety such as André Breton and his family, among other renowned Surrealists. Lam finally left France in the spring of 1941 bound for Martinique and at last, reached Cuba late that year. He had spent two years in Paris only to abandon his studio leaving all behind and sail into an uncertain future. Of his arrival in Cuba Lam expressed that it filled him with anguish because he found himself in the same situation as before he left his homeland when he had no great horizons before him, the artist confided to Max-Pol Fouchet. However, his return to his birthplace also proved to be exceptionally inspirational and stimulating. “I responded always to the presence of factors which emanated from our history and our geography, tropical flowers, and black culture.” Lam immediately began to vigorously work on paintings that would develop and become his most iconic works such as The Jungle (1944) and Femme cheval (1950), and eventually come to define his mature style. By the end of the 1940s, Lam’s modernism would be recognized internationally and gain him critical and commercial acclaim as one of the most important artists of the twentieth century.
Lam’s return home compelled him to become profoundly absorbed in the drama of his county and reconnect with the Afro-Cuban culture of his childhood and religious practices that fused Catholic and African traditions in search of the spiritual, known as Lucumí or Santería from which he had distanced himself while living and working in Europe. Lam rekindled friendships with writers and artists he had known from his stay in Spain such as Alejo Carpentier and poet Nicolás Guillén and was introduced to other intellectuals such as the anthropologist and specialist in the Afro-Cuban culture Lydia Cabrera who became a fervent supporter and wrote about him in one of Cuba’s leading newspapers, El Diario de la Marina, championing his work. Furthermore, Cabrera promoted Lam to Havana’s social milieu; introduced him to Afro-Cuban contacts who, welcomed him to their bembés and other ancient ceremonies; and even, advised the artist on the titles of his works from this period. As the artist forged a new aesthetic synthesizing his modernist sensibilities, and African origins filtered through his Cuban roots culminating in the The Jungle, the central element in his work became the female power represented in a Cuban landscape which embodied lo africano–the femme cheval or horse-headed woman. The female form is almost indiscernible from the vegetation in his earliest explorations of the theme but by 1950, Lam’s visual invention or subject matter appears in various renowned works such as this composition.
The Femme cheval or horse-headed woman represents a devotee in the Afro-Cuban religion in the process of being possessed by a spirit or orisha. Lam’s exquisite rendering of the form is a trademark of his great draftsmanship so explicitly distinct in the delicate and sensual anatomy of the figure and the figure’s cascading mane and tail; and, as overwhelmingly fierce as the horns of the head attest. Lam’s hybrid-personages half human and half-animal, become part of his visual lexicon in his work since coming home. His colors are consumed by the light of the sacred spectacle and figure of the femme cheval and appear in shades of silver greys, anthracite, and charcoal. The femme cheval embodies potent cosmic forces, vital, healing, and part of Lam’s heritage and that of all the peoples from Africa that began arriving in Cuba’s shores hundreds of years before him.
Margarita Aguilar, Doctoral Candidate, The Graduate Center, City University of New York.
L. Stokes Sims, Wifredo Lam and the International Avant-Garde, 1923-1982, Austin: University of Texas Press, 2003, 33.
Cited in Stokes Sims, 35.
Stokes Sims, 3.
J. Cuervo Hewitt, “Aché, ewe, guedes, nganga, vititi nfinda y Orichas en La jungla de Wifredo Lam,” Afro-Hispanic Review, Vol. 26, No. 1, African Religions in the New World (SPRING 2007), 61, 62.
Stokes Sims, 43.