A Dark and Unnerving Painting by Wifred Lam
LA FEMME (Woman), 1947
(Ink and wash on cardboard)
This painting was made by the Avant-garde, Asian-Afro-Cuban artist Wifredo Lam (1902-1982) in 1947.
I was immediately struck by this dark and unnerving painting with its violent and savage undertones.
Lam’s art is very powerful. He fuses the techniques of Western Modernism with African, Caribbean, and Oceanic symbolism, thus celebrating his mixed heritage and empowering black cultures which, at the time, were despised in Europe and the Americas. As a result, his paintings are mesmerising, different, dark, and exotic.
This painting was produced in Cuba, but it definitely shows the influence that Western Modernism (and its so-called ‘primitive’ undertones) had on his work. After initially studying in Cuba (his place of birth), Lam moved briefly to France where he met Picasso and was heavily influenced by Cubism and Surrealism. Then, in 1945-1946 he visited Haiti where he became fascinated with the Voodo rituals of the Afro-Cuban religious cult Santeria in which the spirit was thought to overtake the human body.
Variations of the strange figure depicted in this painting have appeared in other paintings of his in which they are meant to depict a God of Santeria, the God of War. The harsh forms of the eerie figure evoke a sense of aggression, resilience and strength. It is a very formidable painting indeed.
Lam himself stated that he aimed to create “hallucinating figures with the power to surprise.” Indeed, his imaginative paintings conjure up strange dream-like figures that unnerve the eye.
Lam’s paintings were also a political comment against colonialism. He himself claimed that he wanted his art to result in “mental de-colonisation.” One could argue that he achieved this by meshing different styles and cultures in his art, thus destroying any sense of social hierarchy.
Today, this painting is housed in the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art in Denmark.