Wifredo Lam’s ‘Mental Decolonization’

The artwork of Wifredo Lam (1902-1982)–one painting in particular–made an indelible impression on a young Gary Nader.

“For 25 years when you get to (the Museum of Modern Art, New York), at the entrance on the left, (Lam’s) Jungle piece was hanging and that caught my attention since I was 16-years-old, the first time I went to MoMA,” Nader told me when I wrote about his gallery’s connection to Wifredo Lam for Forbes. “It was the only Latin (artist) hanging on the walls–nowhere else, but at the entrance of the museum–I specifically remember it was on the left side and it was there for many, many years.”

Lam’s Jungle was not a physical location, rather, he considered it a psychological place where the imagination and the spirit could run free.

Nader would grow up to take over the art gallery his father started in the Dominican Republic, add galleries across America, establish a museum for Latin American art in Miami, all the while championing Lam as one of the 20th century’s most important Modern artists. Nader’s work is paying off, for Lam specifically and Latin American art broadly.

Lam’s Omi Obini from 1943 set a new auction record for the Cuban artist at a Sotheby’s auction this past June. The painting, for which Nader was the underbidder, guaranteeing a sale prior to the auction’s start, sold for $9.6 million, almost doubling Lam’s previous high mark, $5.2 million, established in 2017. Following its purchase, the work joins the Costantini Collection at the Latin American Art Museum of Buenos Aires.

Nader believes that if Omi Obini had come to market outside of COVID-19 conditions, the price would have been even higher.

“If this would have been a normal auction where people would have gone to the cocktails and seen the painting and (it) would have gone on travelling to Hong Kong and the auction would have been live, this piece would have sold for close to $20 million,” Nader said.

WIFREDO LAM, Cuba, 1902-1982, 'Figure,' 1949. Oil on canvas, 41 3/8 x 31 1/2 In. 105 x 80 Cm. Signed and dated lower right.
WIFREDO LAM, Cuba, 1902-1982, ‘Figure,’ 1949. Oil on canvas, 41 3/8 x 31 1/2 In. 105 x 80 Cm. Signed and dated lower right. GARY NADER, MIAMI.

Wifredo Lam at Gary Nader Gallery Miami

Nader has become one of the foremost authorities on Lam, traveling the world to study his work, even undertaking the painstaking process of producing the artist’s catalogue raisonné–a complete detailing of all known work. Nader has hosted multiple retrospectives of Lam’s work at his galleries, the latest being “Wifredo Lam and the Black Spirit” at Gary Nader Art Centre, Wynwood Arts District, Miami, through the end of August.

“(Lam) becoming an essential in the history of art is extremely important for us Latin Americans,” Nader said. “There’s only a handful of them that have reached this (level) and what is happening to Lam today, I said it was going to happen 30 years ago, so I’m very happy that at least I can see it when I’m alive because sometimes it doesn’t happen in a lifetime.”

In addition to MoMA, Lam’s work can be found in the permanent collections at the Art Institute of Chicago, the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, the Reina Sofia in Madrid, the Centre Pompidou in Paris and London’s Tate Britain to name only a few of the leading institutions holding his work.

“Today he is regarded not as only a Latin American and Cuban master, he is regarded as one of the most important Surrealist artists in the world,” Nader said.

WIFREDO LAM (Cuba 1902 - 1982), 'Hermes Trismegiste,' 1945. Oil on canvas, 63 x 50 In. 160 x 127 Cm. Signed and dated lower right.
WIFREDO LAM (Cuba 1902 – 1982), ‘Hermes Trismegiste,’ 1945. Oil on canvas, 63 x 50 In. 160 x 127 Cm. Signed and dated lower right.

Becoming Wifredo Lam

Lam’s background features an almost inconceivable mix of influences, a unique artistic recipe that begins with a Chinese-born father, an African mother with additional Spanish descendants, and a childhood spent in Cuba.

His grandmother was a Santeria princess, his mother a devout Roman Catholic.

Tall and thin with movie-star good looks and the confidence which accompanies that packaging, his artistic training and talent would take him to Madrid for several years of study. There, he would engage in close-up observation of Goya and Velázquez at the Prado, but also Bosch and Bruegel, whose fantastic, grotesque images recall Lam’s later, nightmarish work.

While in Spain, he fought against Franco’s fascists in the revolution. His first wife and child died there from tuberculosis.

He moved to Paris in 1938, becoming close friends with Picasso. Picasso would exert a deep influence on Lam’s work by helping connect Lam to his African roots.

By the time he met Lam, Picasso had long been fascinated by African masks, incorporating them into his work, most notably Les Demoiselles d’Avignon. Picasso gave Lam an African mask, saying, “you should be proud of this,” according to a story retold by the artist’s son, Eskil Lam, “your ancestors did this.”

Picasso empowered Lam, making him proud of where he came from.

Picasso also entrenched Lam in Paris’ artistic avant-garde, introducing him to Georges Braque, Matisse, Joan Miró and Fernand Léger among others.

When Lam left Paris ahead of the approaching Nazis, he went to the south of France where he came in contact with Surrealists including André Breton, Max Ernst and André Masson.

Finally fleeing the continent and Nazis in 1941, Lam returned to Cuba where these influences would synthesize into an unmistakable visual language of his own. Back in Havana, the country’s overt racial caste system, one which he was born into, but couldn’t fully recognize until moving to Europe where it didn’t exist to the same degree, then coming back to see it as a grown man, awoke him to the struggle for racial equality and politicized his work.

Afro-Cubanism + European classicism

Lam’s work became original, fusing his Afro-Cuban upbringing with classical European study and techniques developed in close contact with the world’s greatest Modern painters. What had previously been considered “low” art by the artistic establishment was blended for the first time with what was thought of as traditionally “high” art in the hands of a virtuoso. No one had ever approached the mix before.

“He painted like a European master, but with an Afro-Cuban language, that was completely unique,” Nader said. “Human, animals and jungle transform themselves into one piece, this is the influence he has from his personal life and the life that he learned to live in Europe.”

Lam saw his work as providing “mental decolonization,” “to disturb the dreams of the exploiters.”

He wanted to act as a Trojan horse, his paintings, which appeared to mix Cubism and Surrealism in the style of European modernism, actually highlighting anti-colonial Afro-Cuban imagery for those looking closely. 

“I wanted with all my heart to paint the drama of my country, but by thoroughly expressing the black spirit, the beauty of the plastic art of the blacks.” Lam said. 

With the conversation surrounding the lasting impacts of European colonialism and recognizing black voices as relevant now as it ever was during Lam’s lifetime, his work demands renewed attention.

“Great things are happening to minorities, women artists, black artists, Chinese artists are becoming essential in any collection, not because it’s (fashionable), because they deserve recognition,” Nader said. “Lam is in the center of all this–his father was Chinese, his last name is Chinese and his mother was black, so he’s a black Chinese artist for the whole world to admire, coming from Cuba.”

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