Lam, who had spent three years working with the Surrealists in Paris, aimed for The Jungle to convey the haunting consequences of slavery and colonialism for his native island of Cuba. He depicted figures with crescent-shaped faces, recalling African or Pacific Islander masks, against a background of Cuban sugarcane fields. Cuba, one of the world’s largest sugar exporters, had been colonized since the sixteenth century, and the Atlantic slave trade had brought more than a million Africans there as labor for the country’s plantations. “I wanted with all my heart to paint the drama of my country,” Lam wrote, “to disturb the dreams of the exploiters.”
Gallery label from "Collection 1940s—1970s", 2019
In this monumental and thematically complex gouache, masked figures simultaneously emerge and disappear amid thick sugarcane and bamboo foliage. The multiperspectival rendering of these figures recalls Cubism, while the fantastical moonlit jungle scene around the monstrous beings—which are half-human, half-animal—evokes the realm of the Surrealists.
Lam was born in Cuba but spent much of his twenties and thirties in Europe, a sojourn that deeply affected his artistic vision. While there, he befriended Pablo Picasso and also established himself as an integral member of the Surrealist movement. Lam merged the artistic and cultural traditions of Europe with those of his homeland when he returned to Cuba in 1941 and renewed his familiarity with its light, vegetation, and culture. In The Jungle, the woman-horse depicted on the left is a figure from Afro-Cuban mysticism that represents a spirit in communication with the natural world. Through a masterful exercise in the language of European modernist painting, Lam asserted the African roots of Cuban identity and addressed the troubling reality of Cuba’s colonial legacy—a reflection of his own confrontational dialogue with the European interest in so-called primitive art.
Publication excerpt from MoMA Highlights: 375 Works from The Museum of Modern Art, New York (New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 2019)