“My painting is an act of decolonization not in a physical sense, but in a mental one.”
A pivotal figure of Latin American modern art, Wifredo Lam was born in 1902 in Cuba, the son of a Chinese father and an Afro-Cuban mother of Spanish descent. After graduating from Havana’s Academia Nacional de Bellas Artes San Alejandro, he won a scholarship in 1923 to study at the Museo del Prado in Madrid, where he stayed until 1938, when he moved to Paris. There he was enthusiastically embraced by the city’s avant-garde, whose members at the time were fascinated with the unconscious, the fantastic, and the non-European cultures of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas. As a Caribbean of African descent, Lam held a particular appeal for these artists and poets (especially Pablo Picasso and André Breton), who perceived his race as playing a distinctive role in his work. In 1940, after the Nazis had occupied Paris, Lam escaped via cargo ship for an arduous journey back to Cuba. The voyage included a layover in the French Caribbean island of Martinique, where he met the poet Aimé Césaire, a founder of the Négritude movement, whose ideas would have an enduring influence on the artist.
Back in Cuba after this long absence, Lam was confronted with the harsh reality of a country struggling to emerge from over 400 years of colonial subjugation. Disturbed by the island’s condition, Lam found motivation in his empathy with the dispossessed: “I wanted with all my heart to paint the drama of my country, but by thoroughly exploring the negro spirit, the beauty of the plastic art of the blacks.” La jungla (The Jungle), made two years after his return to Cuba, is a monumental drawing of life-size figures in a sugarcane field, a location invested with the island’s history of slavery. Embracing the influence of Cubism, Lam depicts these characters multiperspectivally and gives them stylized masks, referring not only to the masks in, say, Picasso’s Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907) but also to the idols of Afro-Cuban mysticism. Lam used water-based gouache to compose the scene in translucent layers. The figures stand camouflaged amid the dense bamboo and sugarcane; their totemic forms, simultaneously voluptuous and angular, gesture provocatively in a mysterious scene evoking “*lo real maravilloso*” (the marvelous real), a term coined by the Cuban novelist Alejo Carpentier to describe the genuinely surreal nature of everyday life in the Caribbean. In Lam’s jungle, the exuberance of nature, and the imperturbable expressions of the masks, are interrupted by the alarming presence of sharp blades and beaks in the sugarcane. These menacing presences insinuate that other dangers may lie hidden beneath the jungle’s skin.
A landmark in Lam’s oeuvre, La jungla was included in a solo exhibition at New York’s Pierre Matisse Gallery in 1944. There it caught the eye of James Johnson Sweeney, MoMA’s director of painting and sculpture, who successfully proposed the work for purchase to the Inter-American Fund, recently endowed by Nelson Rockefeller to strengthen the Museum’s Latin American holdings. Although Lam was absent from MoMA’s 1944 survey Modern Cuban Painters (following a dispute with the Cuban critic José Gómez Sicre, one of the show’s organizers), La jungla went on view in the Museum’s collection galleries immediately after its acquisition, in June 1945, and has been often on display since.
Lam left Europe having experienced firsthand the vitality of Cubism, the emergence of Surrealism, and modern art’s fascination with African art. At home in Cuba, he developed a style that allowed him to express the hybrid quality of Cuban identity, fully asserting the African elements of its history in the language of modernist painting. In works such as La jungla, Lam reintegrated African art forms into an autochthonous context, challenging the Western construction of “the primitive” while still acknowledging the reality of Cuba’s colonial legacy.
Originally published in Among Others: Blackness at MoMA, ed. Darby English and Charlotte Barat (New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 2019)
Karen Grimson, Curatorial Assistant, Department of Drawings and Prints
Note: Opening quote is from Stephanie D’Alessandro and Matthew Gale, “The World in the Time of the Surrealists,” Surrealism without Borders (New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2021), 29.