Exploring Identity Through Wifredo Lam’s La Jungla (1943)

From the 1930s until the 1950s, several members of the African diaspora turned to Aimé Césairé’s Négritude movement in order to decolonize Black contributions in the Western world. Among those interested in the idea of Négritude was Wifredo Lam (1902–1982), an Afro-Cuban painter. After Lam met Césairé in 1941, he became fascinated by the need for the African diaspora to reclaim the original African meaning in Cubism — a meaning that Cubism actively ignored by appropriating African figures as trivial and primitivist adornments. Around this time, Lam moved to Cuba to create paintings that would move him “closer to his own culture instead of moving away” and this is the period in his life where his most renowned work, La Jungla (1943) (Fig. 1), was born.[1]Through the incorporation of elements from Santería, European Cubism and Surrealism, and West and Central Africa, Wifredo Lam’s La Jungla (1943) illustrates Lam’s Négritude and rethinks Afro-Caribbean identity in the Black Atlantic outside of its Western definition.

Fig. 1. Wifredo Lam, The Jungle (La Jungla), gouache on paper mounted on canvas, 1943, Museum of Modern Art, New York.

Wifredo Lam was a twentieth century Cuban artist and one of the most influential ones in Latin American Modernism. Lam is remembered by his Surrealist-like and Cubist-like paintings that embodied his signature style: a sort-of hybrid between these two movements; a new style that did not perfectly fit into Western categories. In fact, growing up in the Caribbean during the early twentieth century as the “son of a Chinese father and a European-African mother”, Lam was, since his childhood, familiar with the struggle of not fitting into one category.[2] Lam would later come to the realization that this was in part due to these categories being created by hegemonic European culture whose heritage did not resemble his own or that of other Afro-Latinos. Lowery Stokes Sims, the former Curator Emerita for the Museum of Arts and Design, even stated that:

Lam’s mixed ancestry summarized the history and culture of Cuba, which from the sixteenth through the nineteenth century was dominated by the influx of people from all over the world. The indigenous populace had been virtually eradicated by European colonists, who in turn imported slaves from western Africa for the labor-intensive cultivation of sugar cane. Before the slave trade ceased in 1886, nearly three-quarters of a million Africans had been brought to Cuba, and consequently the island’s society acquired that heritage. Yet white Euroeans continued to dominate the upper levels of society and the economy, partly because Cuba remained staunchly colonialist. Unlike most New World countries, which had won independence during the early and middle years of the nineteenth century, Cubra gained autonomy from Spain only in 1902, the year Lam was born.[3]

As stated above, Wifredo Lam was someone who “physically embodied and actively experienced the multicultural heritages of the New World” not only in his art, but in his life.[4] Just as how Lam grew up as part of several communities, so did his art. For instance, from the dominant Western traditions of the time, it was the “fanciful yet spiritual visions of Hieronymus Bosch and El Greco” as well as the “simplified forms and vivid colors of Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso” that inspired Lam.[5] Likewise, from his Central and West African heritage, it was the “pointed oval or heart-shaped face” of sculptures across the Congo Basin and Nigeria and the “‘coffee bean’ type” eyes that inspired Lam.[6] There are also elements, such as the sugar canes, that truly embody his mixed ancestry by referring “not only to Cuba’s pervasive plantations” and their connection to the slave trade from Africa, but “to Lam’s Chinese ancestry taken root in Caribbean soil” as well.[7]

This same cultural hybridity that is so characteristic of Lam’s life and art, can also be seen in La Jungla (1943) through the “bamboo-like stalks of wild cane”, the oval-like faces, and the clear Cubist influence, among other elements.[8] La Jungla (1943) is a large (239.4 x 229.9 cm) gouache on paper art piece mounted on canvas, that features vibrant colors that resembled the tropical flora Lam observed in Cuba. These “brilliant colors of the tropics” featured a “high-key palette of violets, blues, greens, yellows, oranges, and reds” that really conveyed the “jewel-like brilliance” of the Cuban foliage.[9] The background displays a jungle filled with jewel-like sugar canes and frutas bomba (papayas) that both morph to become part of the figures in the painting in a way that is directly influenced by André Breton’s Surrealism . The frutas bomba, specifically, “serve as visual puns for breasts” that emphasize “the integration of the female form with the landscape — a long-standing symbolism in both European and African traditions”.[10] Thus, illustrating once again how Lam integrates elements from all his different heritages to create something new. Something that, similar to the Black Atlantic, is not exclusively African, Chinese, European, or creole, but something that exists as a result of the cross-breeding of all these different cultures.

Moving from the background and towards the actual figures depicted in La Jungla (1943), Lam integrates elements of multiculturalism through more than just the repeated usage of frutas bomba and the sugar canes. Located in the upper right corner of the painting, the viewer can observe the only non-natural element one can distinguish, a pair of scissors. According to the acclaimed Cuban art historian and curator, Gerardo Mosquera, these scissors can be interpreted as “a turning and a synthesis that might be endorsed by modernity, thus creating a non-Western space within the Western tradition, decentralizing it, transforming and de-Europeanizing it”.[11]

Another way that Lam uses the figures in La Jungla (1943) to decolonize the ideas surrounding it, is by incorporating elements of Santería as key subjects in the painting. From a young age, Lam had always been exposed, at least on a cultural sense, to Santería. Growing up in Sagua la Grande, Cuba, his mother’s hometown, Lam was surrounded by his godmother, a priestess in the chapter of Santa Barbara (Shango), as well as by other African customs from the area.[12] It is necessary to highlight that regardless of how exposed Lam was to Santería, he was never officially part of the religion and only participated in certain rituals as a spectator. However, Lam recognized how culturally relevant Santería was in Afro-Carribean culture and the need to reclaim its origin in “the beliefs and practices of the Yoruba people from Nigeria”.[13]

In order for Lam’s Modernism to successfully become a rejection of the hegemonic European Modernism, cultural and religious practices like Cuban Santería and Haitian Voodoo, could not be ignored. These practices represent some of the many ways that “Africans and their descendants participated actively in the process of creolization and mixture” by creating “new cultures and nationalities in the Americas”.[14] In La Jungla (1943), Lam depicts Santería through the recurring image of the femme cheval (or “horse-woman”).[15] The femme cheval appeals to the Santería practice of possesions by the orishas (“divinities or spirits who act as intermediaries between humans and the forces of nature”) while also invoking a feminine energy that is key to Lam’s Négritude and the cultural syncretism of La Jungla (1943).[16]The image of the femme cheval and the image of the Santería priestess act “not only as protectors and disseminators of Afro-Cuban culture, but also as models of empowerment over and against their white exploiters and colonizers”.[17]

Even though Lam’s Négritude was, naturally, very autochthonous to Lam’s practice, this desire to use visual art to deconstruct the European perspectives of the time can also be identified in the work of other Latin American Modernists, for instance: Diego Rivera, Joaquin Torres-Garcia, and Roberto Matta. Lam and Matta, for instance, “both embraced Surrealism as a means of liberation for the individual spirit. Yet each interpreted it differently, the one [Lam] toward Afro-Caribbean imagery, the other [Matta] toward an exploration of the psyche in a broader humanist context”.[18] In its own way, Breton’s Surrealism inspired the deconstructive character seen in two remarkable examples of Latin American Modernism: Lam’s La Jungla (1943) and Matta’s Here, Sir Fire, Eat! (1942) (Fig. 2). Nowadays, as a result from the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA)’s latest efforts to fight recent critiques of it being a space for “white, male, and nationalist” art, these two works can now be admired in the David Geffen Galleries dedicated to Out of War art.[19]

Fig. 2. Roberto Matta, Here, Sir Fire, Eat!, oil on canvas, 1942, Museum of Modern Art, New York.

Just as how the Black Atlantic is not restricted to one nationality or location, neither is Lam’s impact. From twentieth century Cuba to the prestigious galleries of New York’s MoMA and the well-known Queloides exhibition in the twenty-first century, the way La Jungla (1943) confronts dislocation and assimilation remains relevant and inspiration to artists and members of the African diaspora everywhere. Similar to Lam’s practice, the way Queloides deals with “the subjects of race, discrimination, and racism…is not confined to the island”.[20] This can be seen in the work of Cuban composer, Elio Rodríguez, who is directly inspired by La Jungla (1943) and the way Lam “turns it into a landscape replete with the symbolism of Caribbean sexuality and lasciviousness”.[21] Lam’s Négritude not only redefined identity outside of the European hegemony during the 1940s, but has continued to do so since the early 2000s. As “the first vision ever of modern art from the standpoint of Africa within Latin America”, one cannot analyze the many ways that La Jungla (1943) deals with decolonization without considering the many ways that this painting continues to do so even after the peak of the Afro-Cubans movement.[22]

With paintings like La Jungla (1943), Wifredo Lam reinvents the idea of Africa, the Carribean, and most importantly, the Black Atlantic, outside of its physical space and definitions. Through La Jungla (1943)’s signature incorporation of elements from Santería, European Cubism and Surrealism, and West and Central Africa, Lam successfully manages to redefine the Modernism of the time by appealing to a cultural hybrid that embodied the multiculturalism of the Black Atlantic. The identity that Lam invokes with this work is something outside of hegemonic definitions that is autochthonous to the Black Atlantic and remains until this day as part of our contemporary and global society.

[1] Mosquera, Gerardo. “Riding Modernism: Wifredo Lam’s Decenterings.” Nka Journal of Contemporary African Art1997, no. 6–7 (January 1997): 16–21 . https://doi.org/10.1215/10757163-6-7-1-16.

[2] Fletcher, Valerie, and Lowery S Sims. “Syncretism and Syntax in the Art of Wifredo Lam.” In Crosscurrents of Modernism: Four Latin American Pioneers: Diego Rivera, Joaquin Torres-Garcia, Wilfredo Lam, Matta = Intercambios Del Modernismo, Cuatro Precursores Latinoamericanos, 167. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian, 1992.

[3] Fletcher, Valerie, and Lowery S Sims. “Syncretism and Syntax in the Art of Wifredo Lam.” 167.

[4] Fletcher, Valerie, and Lowery S Sims. “Syncretism and Syntax in the Art of Wifredo Lam.” 167.

[5] Fletcher, Valerie, and Lowery S Sims. “Syncretism and Syntax in the Art of Wifredo Lam.” 169.

[6] Fletcher, Valerie, and Lowery S Sims. “Syncretism and Syntax in the Art of Wifredo Lam.” 171.

[7] Fletcher, Valerie, and Lowery S Sims. “Syncretism and Syntax in the Art of Wifredo Lam.” 169.

[8] Fletcher, Valerie, and Lowery S Sims. “Syncretism and Syntax in the Art of Wifredo Lam.” 169.

[9] Fletcher, Valerie, and Lowery S Sims. “Syncretism and Syntax in the Art of Wifredo Lam.” 175.

[10] Fletcher, Valerie, and Lowery S Sims. “Syncretism and Syntax in the Art of Wifredo Lam.” 217.

[11] Mosquera, Gerardo. “Modernism from Afro-America: Wilfredo Lam.” In Beyond the Fantastic, 130. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1996.

[12] Mosquera, Gerardo. “Modernism from Afro-America: Wilfredo Lam.” In Beyond the Fantastic, 124. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1996.

[13] Fletcher, Valerie, and Lowery S Sims. “Syncretism and Syntax in the Art of Wifredo Lam.” 181.

[14] Mosquera, Gerardo. “Riding Modernism: Wifredo Lam’s Decenterings.” 20.

[15] Fletcher, Valerie, and Lowery S Sims. “Syncretism and Syntax in the Art of Wifredo Lam.” 183.

[16] Fletcher, Valerie, and Lowery S Sims. “Syncretism and Syntax in the Art of Wifredo Lam.” 183.

[17] Sato, Paula. “Wifredo Lam, the Shango Priestess, and the Femme Cheval.” Journal of International Women’s Studies 17 (June 2016): 92. http://vc.bridgew.edu/jiws/vol17/iss3/8.

[18] Fletcher, Valerie. “Introduction” In Crosscurrents of Modernism: Four Latin American Pioneers: Diego Rivera, Joaquin Torres-Garcia, Wilfredo Lam, Matta = Intercambios Del Modernismo, Cuatro Precursores Latinoamericanos, 17. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian, 1992.

[19] Cotter, Holland. “MoMA Reshapes Image with ‘Modernism Plus’: Review.” New York Times, Oct 11, 2019, Late Edition (East Coast). https://login.avoserv2.library.fordham.edu/login?url=https://search-proquest-com.avoserv2.library.fordham.edu/docview/2303529921?accountid=10932.

[20] Fuente, Alejandro de la, and Valdés Elio Rodríguez. Queloides: Race and Racism in Cuban Contemporary Art = Raza y Racismo En El Arte Cubano contemporáneo, 20. Pittsburgh, PA: Mattress Factory, 2010.

[21] Fuente, Alejandro de la, Valdés Elio Rodríguez, and Dennys Matos. “Racism: Parody and Postcommunism” In Queloides: Race and Racism in Cuban Contemporary Art = Raza y Racismo En El Arte Cubano contemporáneo, 67. Pittsburgh, PA: Mattress Factory, 2010.

[22] Mosquera, Gerardo. “Modernism from Afro-America: Wilfredo Lam.” In Beyond the Fantastic, 127. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1996.

College graduate based in Panama City. I write about contemporary art and its intersection with culture, technology, and digital trends.

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