Lam's Caribbean Years: An Intercultural Dialogue

This essay intends to provide a broad cultural picture of Havana and Port-au-Prince framed by Wifredo Lam's re-entry to Havana in August 1941, and his visit to Haiti in winter 1945-1946. One focus is on the emer- gence of an interest in, and support of, Afro-Cuban culture on the one hand, and what is known as indiginiste culture in Haiti, on the other. Lam's recognition of his heritage and his profound interest in exploring aspects of Afro-Cuban culture proved central to the development and florescence of his painting style during these years. Although there exists scholarly work that analyzes and constructs elaborate iconographic and formal analysis of Lam's paintings, I propose to counter what I consider the often overdetermined and essentializing conclusions of many fine scholars. 

I intend to place Lam's paintings in an environment of pioneering efforts by an important handful of individuals, citizens or intrepid visitors and sometime residents, who were dedicated to studying, exposing, and elevating the African-based cultures under consideration. In both Cuba and Haiti this heritage had long been deprecated, misunderstood and blatantly misrepresented. Wifredo Lam's life is interconnected  with the refugee status of a displaced European avant-garde and their encounter with Caribbean intellectuals and cultural workers. For Lam was simultaneously a refugee and a national. It is as Rene Morales,  now associate curator at the Miami Art Museum (MAM), wrote some years ago: "The islands of the Caribbean have always been open to the  world, not closed. For over five centuries, this archipelago has hungrily absorbed outside influences while vigorously projecting itself outward."

The individuals I discuss in this essay created a fascinating web of friendships and collaborations that crossed national boundaries and moved in and out of the Caribbean, from Paris to Marseilles, across the Atlantic, throughout the Caribbean, to New York and back to the Caribbean, and then on to Paris. I mention events that have been written about, and hope to place these events in a slightly different frame- work, creating a more complete picture of Wifredo Lam's world during this period. I also aim to demystify much of Lam's involvement in this "new world," not in order to criticize his enormous visual accomplishments, but to place them in a fuller context.