Wilfredo Lam, “The Jungle”, 1942-1944, Gouache on Paper, Museum of Modern Art, New York
Wilfredo Lam was born in Sagua La Grande, Cuba, of mixed Chinese, European, Indian, and African descent. Strands of Afro-Caribbean religious practices such as Santería filtered into his upbringing and would come to greatly influence his art. In 1916, he moved to Havana, where he began sketching the tropical plants at the botanical garden. By 1923, Lam had completed his studies in painting. That same year, feeling a distaste for academia and a passion for painting out-of-doors and in the street, he moved to Spain.
In Spain, Lam experienced European artistic practices firsthand, working and studying with radical, nonconformist painters and absorbing early influences from the works of Paul Cézanne and Paul Gauguin. He moved to Paris in 1938, where he met Pablo Picasso who became his friend and supporter, introducing him into his circle of Cubists and other avant-garde artists. In 1939, Lam met poet and founder of Surrealism André Breton and became associated with the Surrealist movement. Working mainly in gouache he began painting fantastical figures with fragmented, geometrical bodies, often with a combination of human and animal parts and faces resembling the African carvings.
Lam painted “The Jungle” during a flowering of interest in Afro-Cuban traditions by writers, artists, and intellectuals Back home in Cuba and already immersed in African art, Lam began to frequent Santería ceremonies where Africans living in Cuba overlaid their own traditions onto Catholicism, while they continued to practice their religions, such as Voodoun, in secret, hidden settings as the jungle that crowds Lam’s painting.
In “The Jungle”, Lam blends Afro-Cuban and African artistic and cultural traditions with the European modernist movements of Cubism and Surrealism. At nearly eight feet high by just over seven-and-a-half feet wide, this gouache on paper and canvas composition can feel immersive, or engulfing. Four part-human, part-animal figures, with exaggerated hands and feet and faces recalling African masks, stand side-by-side. In Cubist fashion, their bodies are fragmented into individual parts that do not seem to fit together logically. With their fantastic appearance, they seem as if they could have sprung from the artist’s dreams.
The figures seem to simultaneously emerge from and merge with a dense wall of vegetation composed of thick, banded stalks suggestive of the sugarcane that grew in the fields the slaves worked. The rightmost figure holds a pair of shears, a possible reference to harvesting, while the leftmost figure, with its horse-like features, could be seen to hint at one of the spirits in Afro-Cuban mysticism. Since Lam chose a palette of blues and greens, with touches of yellow and white, this could be read as a moonlit night scene, or as taking place during the day, under the cover of the deep shade of the jungle.