Wifredo Lam's Habitual Rituals

"Wifredo Lam" at Tate Modern in London is a comprehensive retrospective of this somewhat underappreciated Modernist, who was continuously searching for new ways to transmit signs and symbols of life, dreams, hope, acceptance, religious mysticism and the plight of the other in the form of paintings, prints, drawings and ceramics. Primarily a narrative artist, Lam becomes comfortable with his Afro-Cuban background later in life with encouragement from Pablo Picasso, fully embracing it to produce works with ritualistic overtones that connect to the Santería religion his priestess grandmother practiced. Featuring hybrid figures that move in and out of the paintings, sometimes becoming one with the landscape and at other instances manifested as outlined totems, Lam blends Cubism with Surrealism and Abstraction to create a truly unique and personal style of image making that can most closely be related to the Chilean Roberto Matta's work.

Comparing two canvasses of seven years apart, one sees a shift in his work after returning to Cuba in 1941. The Sombre Malembo, God of the Crossroads, 1943, with its almost psychedelic bright hues and human-animal hybrids blending into the foliage is in stark contrast to Rumblings of the Earth, 1950. The latter has a group of splayed, nude cartoony figures conducting some sort of violent ritual with erotic overtones. Once Lam realized that by using his heritage to create works that gave others a glimpse into the unknown, as well as seeing bits of themselves was his greatest asset, he was unstoppable. Works like The Fiance, 1, 1950, relate to Picasso’s copious cubist portraits of women, yet one would never consider it anything else but a masterful Lam, with its bold outlines, Caribbean vibe and a helping of the mystical in the form of ritualistic characters merged with the female form.

"Wifredo Lam," Tate Modern, September 14, 2016 – January 8, 2017.

Wilfredo Lam,  The Sombre Malembo, God of the Crossroads , 1943. Private Collection (The Rudman Trust) © SDO Wifredo Lam.

Wilfredo Lam, The Sombre Malembo, God of the Crossroads, 1943. Private Collection (The Rudman Trust) © SDO Wifredo Lam.