Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
February 8, 2018
Catherine David, ed. Wifredo Lam: The EY Exhibition Exh. cat. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 2016. 240 pp.; 330 color ills. Paperback $45.00 (9781849763721)
Tate Modern, September 16, 2016–January 8, 2017
Installation view, Wifredo Lam: The EY Exhibition, Tate London, September 14, 2016–January 8, 2017 (photograph © 2016; provided by Tate London)

Tate Modern’s wide-ranging, twelve-room retrospective The EY Exhibition examined the complex and politically aesthetic body of work produced by the internationally renowned Cuban Surrealist painter and ceramicist Wifredo Lam (1902–82). Lam achieved fame at an early stage in his career, and his artistic legacy positions him as one of the most influential artists of color to have globalized and pluralized the modernist movement.

The texts and illustrations in the comprehensive exhibition catalogue are presented in five sections: 1) introductions from the exhibition’s sponsor and institutional partners (the Musée National d’Art Modern (MNAM)/Centre Pompidou, Paris, working in collaboration with Tate Modern, London, and the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia, Madrid); 2) three chronologically sequenced essays written by curators Catherine David and Matthew Gale and art historian Kobena Mercer; 3) a 126-page image gallery of color plates comprising more than 170 artworks from Lam’s extensive portfolio of paintings, drawings, and ceramics interspersed with 42 black-and-white photographs; 4) a selected anthology of seven key commentaries written by friends and scholars of Wifredo Lam between 1945 and 2005—including an early critical analysis of Lam’s most celebrated, polymorphous, biopolitical work, The Jungle (1943), written in 1945 by the French intellectual Pierre Mabille; and 5) an illustrated artist’s biography featuring 72 archival images researched and compiled by Jean-Louis Paudrat, accompanied by a selected listing of exhibitions and a bibliography of key monographs, articles, and essays about Lam arranged by type and date of publication.

The foreword, written by Tate Modern director Frances Morris, places initial emphasis on Lam’s global citizenship and hybrid cultural identity as an exilic Caribbean artist who spent a large portion of his adult life living in Europe. Referencing prior analysis by the art critic Max-Pol Fouchet in his book Wifredo Lam (Barcelona: Ediciones Polígrafa, 1986), Morris discusses Lam’s “Trojan Horse” status within the cultural apparatus of a Western-centric art world dominated (then as now) by the caprices and subjectivities of a small but powerful network of wealthy European and US-based art institutions that have conventionally set and policed the standards for determining inclusion within the canon of artistic modernism (7).

MNAM director Bernard Blistène’s preface continues the discussion about Lam’s embodied and represented worldliness in all its fluid and ever-changing forms, rightly describing the artist’s conceptual and creative outputs as utterly incapable of being characterized as anything resembling the reductive “non-western archetype” of the “mimic” (or “imitator”) operating at the margins of modernism simply on account of hailing from a formerly colonized Caribbean island and having a multi-ethnic Cuban heritage (10).

Catherine David’s insightful essay, “El Monte y El Mundo,” considers Lam’s development as a painter, briefly discussing his formative years in Cuba before concentrating on his early adulthood in Spain, where he initially moved in 1923 to take up a fine art scholarship in Madrid and subsequently remained for almost fifteen years. Significant attention is placed on 1931, when Lam’s first wife and son both died from tuberculosis, a tragedy that catalyzed a dramatic change in the artist’s choice of subjects, painting techniques, and use of recurring motifs and signifiers. In particular, the depths of his grief provoked the production of more deeply introspective portraiture—with several paintings reflecting the turmoil of love and loss through increasingly somber depictions of his sitters, and himself, as mournfully melancholic. During this dark and solemn period, Lam’s drawn and painted visages take on increasingly angular, more abstracted masklike forms (seen, for example, in The Awakening, I, 1939, 62, and Self-Portrait III, 1938, 66). At this time he also produces a succession of poignant group compositions exploring the links between familial relations and engagement with the spiritual, sacred, and mythological realms (seen, most notably, in Mother and Child, II, 1939, 63, and The Family, I, 1938, 64).

Kobena Mercer’s essay, “Wifredo Lam’s Afro-Atlantic Routes,” interrogates the syncretism of the artist’s multiethnic, hybrid identity as a Cuban diasporan of mixed heritage, born in the northern town of Sagua La Grande to an Afro-Cuban mother of dual Congolese and Spanish heritage (Ana Serafina Castilla) and a Chinese father (Enrique Lam-Yam). Importantly, Mercer combines this account of the artist’s upbringing with an in-depth assessment of the “multivers[ality]” and “metaphysics of Lam’s syncretic vitalism” (24, 31), as reflected in his increasingly allegorical, surrealist artworks Anamu (1942) (83), Light of the Forest (1942) (84), and Goddess with Foliage (1942) (not illustrated, but described on p. 24). This excellent scholarship considers how the artist’s character, core values, and lifelong commitment to anti-imperialist, liberatory social justice struggles were initially formed within the crucible of a politically tumultuous, historically racist, culturally diverse, yet socioeconomically divided island nation—hierarchically segregated along multiple and intersected constructions of the “color line” during the late colonial period of the twentieth century.

Matthew Gale’s interpretation narrative, “Offshore 1946–1952,” presents a spatiotemporal survey of Lam’s changing styles of drawing and painting during the immediate postwar period, when Lam was constantly traversing the Atlantic between Europe and the Americas. Gale’s curatorial critique continues on from Mercer’s superb visual analysis of Lam’s use of sfumato (the application of paint so that it appears “to evaporate like smoke”) and grisaille (subtle, gray-toned compositions) to create works during the mid- to late 1940s that are reflective of the artist’s reimmersion in Cuban cultural life—especially the island’s historical and spiritual links to Santería, Lucumí, and Vodou, which have traditionally been so integral to the heritage and collective memory of African-descended Cubans. The series of wash paintings and ink drawings produced throughout this diasporic, transatlantic period (when Lam was migrating between France, Martinique, Haiti, and Cuba) regularly depict ethereal, mythological dreamscapes, as can be seen in The Eternal Present (1944), which features symbolic representations of “Changó, the God of thunder,” and reflects “other-worldly spheres of transcendence” (31), and The Annunciation (1944), which illustrates Lam’s “engagement with ‘ancestral black deities’” (38).

A seven-part anthology completes the catalogue’s written interpretation of Lam’s artwork, featuring five texts originally published during the artist’s lifetime (by Lam’s Parisian contemporaries Pierre Mabille, Michel Leiris, and Alain Jouffroy; Cuban anthropologist Fernando Ortiz; and Spanish philosopher Maria Zambrano) followed by two more recently penned evaluations (by New York–based poet and critic John Yau and African American art historian and curator Lowery Stokes Sims), both reflecting on Lam’s legacy within and beyond the modernist canon. Yau’s article, “Please Wait by the Coatroom: Wifredo Lam in the Museum of Modern Art” specifically addresses the problematic paradoxes Lam negotiated in the West throughout his career, always being simultaneously positioned as an influential insider (because of his friendship with Pablo Picasso) but also a marginalised outsider (on account of his Afro-Cuban heritage), thus setting in motion frequent attempts to relegate Lam’s work to the parergonal, interstitial spaces of the twentieth-century art world. Stokes Sims’s text, “The Post-Modern Modernism of Wifredo Lam” concludes the anthology by assessing the enduring appeal of Lam’s “iconographic” and “ancestralist” form of modernism and the ever-prescient, cross-cultural questions his work continues to pose as regards “transcend[ing] differences of nationality and ‘race,’” and destabilizing false binaries about artistic “in/authenticity” in postmodern times (200).

Collectively, these essays and anthologized texts provide a rounded appraisal of Lam’s transatlantic, political, and philosophical metamorphoses, exemplifying his increasing commitment to the production of art as “an act of decolonization” (26). Lam’s powerful decolonial stance aptly reflects the transformations he underwent—particularly between the late 1930s and early 1960s, as he moved from creating ontologically reflexive work to becoming an arts activist motivated by the need to create a uniquely bio-political and inescapably global visual syntax through which to communicate important equalities agendas related to antiracism, subaltern emancipation struggles, and the eradication of poverty worldwide.

Overall, the details presented about Lam’s life and works serve as a useful introduction to this artist’s complex and extensive corpus. For those who already know quite a lot about Lam’s oeuvre, however, it would have been worth foregoing the reproduction of some of the anthologized texts in favor of commissioning an additional new scholarly narrative—preferably written by a Caribbeanist or Latin American studies specialist who might have provided a more nuanced critique concerning the influence of Lam’s diverse ancestral heritage and hybrid cultural identity on his representations of the “marvellous and the sacred” and “lo real maravilloso” (37) (see also Francisco-Javier Hernández Adrián, “Paris, Cuba, New York: Wifredo Lam and the Lost Origins of The Jungle,” Cultural Dynamics 21, no. 3, 2009: 339–60). A contribution from a scholar such as Adrián or Mimi Sheller, for example, would most certainly have helped to enhance readers’ understanding of this neglected aspect of Lam’s cultural and ancestral backstory and imparted alternative insights about symbolic representations of African-descended spiritual practices and the legacies of enslavement throughout the Americas within Lam’s most visually poetic and elegantly labyrinthine works.

Carol Ann Dixon
PhD, Department of Geography, Earth and Environmental Sciences, University of Birmingham, United Kingdom