We are grateful to Eskil Lam for his assistance cataloguing this work.
Born in Sagua la Grande, Cuba in 1902, Wifredo Lam became one of the most celebrated artists of his generation. Returning to Cuba after living in Europe for over 20 years, he found it difficult to insert himself into modernist movements of the period, his work bearing a much more avant-garde aesthetic and other artists being skeptical of his understanding of Cuban realities. This work of the late 1940s presents us with many of his most recognizable features from this period. Bearded figures, horns, exposed breasts, long tails, pointy appendages and references to multiple body sections are all visible. These mystical hybrid creatures have often been interpreted variously as representations of figures that recall Santería practices and beliefs. They have also been interpreted as figures intended to signify what Lowery Sims has described as the “Antillean ethos,” a kind of visual expression of what Lam’ himself often discussed in interviews, stating that his paintings reflect “our complexes and the idiosyncrasies of our people,” which he went on to describe as a mix of indigenous movements and music, the contradictions of the sugar cane field, beliefs and superstitions, racial inequality, and “our climate and geography with their beauty and violence.” 1 Indeed, his “anatomical inventions” would seem to underscore this interpretation of his own work.
In this painting, bodies ridden by spirits are presented as half-human, half-creature, unnamable, unknowable. The figures hover at the center of the canvas in washes of color against a dark background, as though moving through the jungle or the sugar cane field. There is a sense of an aura emanating from their bodies, flaming orange that touches the silhouettes of their purple, red and blue figures. Heads, wings, breasts and horns are intertwined or combined in a single figure; they seem to fly overhead, looking down upon the viewer, hovering endlessly in the air, flapping. Even the earliest critics understood the significance of Lam’s work noting that “. . . each of Lam’s paintings needs its own space to clear away all extraneous visual elements so that it can exist in its own universe.” 2
Rocío Aranda-Alvarado, Curator, El Museo del Barrio, New York
1 Lowery Sims, Wifredo Lam and the International Avant-Garde, 1923-1982 (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2002), p. 112
2 Ibid. Sims quotes the Cuban critic Angel Lázaro after Lam’s 1950 solo show at Parc Central, p. 111.