Wifredo Lam
Wifredo Lam in front of La Jungla (1943) and La Mañana verde (1943) in his studio in Havana. La Silla (1943) is on the floor, 1943 Photo: Wifredo Lam Archives, Paris

A Wifredo Lam's room at the 35th São Paulo Biennial is one of the positive milestones of this edition. The Cuban artist was recognized by Picasso, Breton and the Surrealists as soon as he arrived in Paris in 1938. Before that, still very young, he went to Spain where he studied art. Only later, like most artists of his generation, did he settle in Paris. Even with Picasso's close friendship, Lam managed to develop a personalistic work, recognized throughout the world and which aroused the desire to possess it on the part of important museums and collectors. Of the eight works now on display in a special room at the 35th Biennale, two are from Malba (Buenos Aires), two from the Center Georges Pompidou (Paris), and the rest belong to private collectors.

Jacques Leenhardt, a French critic, with fluid movement through universities in Latin America, gave a lecture at this Biennale about the artist and, among his many commitments in Brazil, gives a succinct interview to arte!brasileiros.

ARTE!✱ – Today decolonialism is on the academic agenda, in political speeches, in student street demonstrations. In the book My paint, Wifredo Lam wrote “My painting was an act of decolonization.” Could you comment?

Jacques Leenhardt – I think it is very dangerous to want to include an artist of Wifredo Lam's importance and complexity immediately in the “decolonial” debate, which took a direction very far from the search for synthesis that characterizes his pictorial work. The important thing, which comes first, must be: seeing and meditating on the works.

Le shadow Malembo
“Le sombre Malembo, dieu des carrefours”, 1943, by Wifredo Lam. Credit: Reproduction

Of course Lam was an anti-colonialist. Anticolonial through a constant concern with constructing the possibility of a different way of being. This sheds light on debates that are often too simplistic. Lam worked from various backgrounds and cultural heritages that, in their own contradictions, constituted his identity. He speaks of his “old desire to integrate into painting all the transculturation that had occurred in Cuba between aborigines, Spaniards, Africans, Chinese, French immigrants, pirates and all the elements that make up the Caribbean. And I claim,” he said, “all this past for myself. I believe that these transculturations transformed these people into a new entity of indisputable human value.”

In these few words, I can see the contours of his ideological position. Through the notion of transculturation, which he borrows from his friend, the Cuban anthropologist Fernando Ortiz, he makes it clear that the advent of a human being at the height of his humanity requires the destruction of barriers, be they racial, economic, social or national.

This is the work he does in his paintings, in which he portrays and overcomes the violence that characterizes human relationships. Just like wars and undemocratic powers, colonization exploited all this violence. It must be combated, as well as its subsequent effects, through acceptance and openness, and not through new violence.

The Biennale has done very well, I think, to include his work in this highly topical debate, as it can be said that many of his main paintings, such as The third world (1956) The Abalochas dance for Dhambala, god of unity (1970), are calls to heal the wounds of history. His work objective is to make possible the reunification of what was brutally separated. The ubiquity of blades and scissors in his paintings speaks of the state of the world, not its future. In 1943 he painted The jungle, a metaphor for the tragic historical conditions created by the sugar industry and its slave-based mode of production. From then on, during the 1950s and 1970s, Lam constructed a choreography of figures and symbols in his paintings, drawn from the different cultures that nurtured him, in particular Cuban Santeria and Haitian Voodoo. If his figures seem to dance on the canvas, it is because the artist is transmitting to them a movement of transcendence that tends towards a lost unity. I believe this is his anti-colonial fight.

Le Matin vert
“Le Matin vert”, 1943, Wifredo Lam. Credit: Reproduction

ARTE!✱ – Wifredo Lam’s apprenticeship in pre-revolutionary Spain, at a time of many discussions about the future of that country, had what type of influence on the artist’s work?

Leenhardt – Lam's Spanish learning led him to Dürer's drawing and Goya's painting, which he later revisited, following Picasso, through the multifocal representation of Cubism. Matisse brought him an anti-perspectivist conception of pictorial space that helped him distance himself from his own European heritage. None of these traditions have been lost since then, and they have all fueled his work with this multiplicity.

ARTE!✱ - Wifredo Lam's room at this 35th São Paulo Biennial displays some fundamental works made in the context of political exile and his transatlantic journeys through the seas of slave ships. What would you highlight?

Leenhardt – The eight paintings exhibited in the Special Room illustrate the turning point of the 1940s: expelled by the Spanish Civil War and, after settling in Paris in 1938, expelled by German troops, Lam returned to Cuba and embarked on the great cross-cultural synthesis that makes it so contemporary. Understanding that he was neither Chinese, nor African, nor European, he discovered that he was “Caribbean”, part of that archipelago of cultures that the violence of history had created in the heart of the sugar industry. In his eyes, as well as in the eyes of his Martinican friends Aimé Césaire and Edouard Glissant, from the very heart of the contradictions that constitute this archipelago, arises the possibility of imagining, dreaming and painting, a future for humanity. ✱

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