Kobena Mercer – Wifredo Lam’s Cross-Cultural Rhizomes

Excerpt from “Lam/Basquiat”, a catalog published by Galerie Gmurzynska on the occasion of a special presentation at Art Basel 2015, prepared in collaboration with Annina Nosei.

Excerpt from “Lam/Basquiat”, a catalog published by Galerie Gmurzynska on the occasion of a special presentation at Art Basel 2015, prepared in collaboration with Annina Nosei.


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Wifredo Lam’s Cross-Cultural Rhizomes

by Kobena Mercer

is entirely without precedent in twentiethcentury

art. Throughout the period 1941 to

1952, when Wifredo Lam had travelled back

to Havana, we find a poetics of space in which

one’s eye is entranced by enigmatic picture

planes whose intense ambiguity arises from

their simultaneous flatness and openness.

Wifredo Lam

Anamu, 1942

Collection Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago

One feels joyfully disoriented in the

presence of The Jungle, 1943 (collection of The

Museum of Modern Art, New York). As various

anthropomorphic figures push forward from a

dense background of tropical vegetation, the

rhythmic pulsation of the vertical lines that

pull their elongated limbs upward unsettles

any figure/ground distinction to create

instead an “all over” composition in which

one’s eye begins to wander and roam. Before

the identity of the strange hybrid creatures

becomes an issue, one is already swept up

into an all-enveloping pictorial space that

Numerous North American painters

moved towards “all over” pictorial space by

passing through the gateway of abstraction

in the early 1940s, but in the Caribbean

journey that led to his mature style, Lam

activated a cross-cultural dialogue between

modernist painting and the ritual forms of

Afro-Cuban life by reworking the pictorial

resources of figuration completely. In such

works as Anamú, 1942 (collection of the

Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago,

Chicago), whose crescent moon face is

rendered in translucent browns and greens,

or the blue and white figuring of Femme, 1942

(Private Collection), where a horse-headed

woman emerges from a shimmering pink

haze, we notice incomplete edges in Lam’s

delineations of figure and ground. Such gaps

and pauses cut openings and passageways

that allow communicative flow among

different signifying systems otherwise closed

to one another in a colonial world dominated

by an either/or mentality of absolute

separation. To say that, with his return

to Cuba, the border-crossing practice of

hybridity comes to act as the core principle

of Lam’s artistic production -- moving

among multiple cultures so as to introduce


Wifredo Lam

Autel pour Eleggua, 1944


Pierre Mabille and Lydia Cabrera with Wifredo Lam, Cuba ca. 1943

change in place of stasis -- is to say that

the inscriptive space he always keeps open

and flat in his paintings was a key condition

for breaking through into a realm of crosscultural

poetics that carried far-reaching

philosophical implications.

At a time of crisis when Europe was

about to plunge into global war, forcing

Lam to flee Paris in 1940, the humanist

ideals of Enlightenment modernity were

being torn apart. Travelling by ship to the

Antilles in the company of André Breton,

André Masson, and other Surrealist Group

members, it was Lam’s friend Pierre Mabille,

an editor of Minotaure and founder of the

Haitian Bureau of Ethnology, who first

recognized what the hybridity principle

was opening up. Decentering the rules

of post-Renaissance picture-making

where monocular perspective created “a

structure dependent on a single centre,”

The Jungle inspired Mabille to argue that,

“this jungle where life explodes on all

sides, free, dangerous, gushing from the

most luxurious vegetation, ready for any

combination, any transmutation,” was

inherently counterposed to, “that other

sinister jungle where a Führer … awaits

the departure … of mechanized cohorts

prepared … for annihilation.” 1 Where

hybridity undercuts all-or-nothing absolutes

by embracing the mutability of boundaries

in the interdependent ecologies of human,

animal, and plant life, Lam’s figures --

with payaya-shaped breasts and phallussprouting

chins, with horse-like manes on

mask-shaped heads -- embody a readiness

for further metamorphosis that reveals

something unique about the Caribbean

conditions of their artistic genesis. Lam

flourished when he returned to Cuba, and

while his “homecoming” is often interpreted

biographically, as a reclaiming of ancestral

roots from his Chinese father, Lam Yam, his

mother Ana Serafina, of mixed Iberian and

Congolese heritage, and his godmother,

Mantonica Wilson, a Santeria priestess, I

would say that a broader understanding

of his Afro-Atlantic originality comes into

view when we consider the multiple routes

leading the artist toward hybridity as a

questioning of any claim to fixed or final


Where New World syncretic religions

such as Santeria combine Yoruba and

Catholic deities to transform European

and African sources in the creation of new,

translational, syntheses, 1940s debates

among artists and ethnographers cast

radical doubt on the idea of assimilation in

colonial governance. Poet Nicholás Guillén


and writer Fernando Ortíz coined the term

“Afro-Cuban” to acknowledge the paradox

of the expressive power transmitted by

the lowest segment of their nation’s ethnic

hierarchy. Their investigations suggested

that Caribbean societies were ready for

“any combination, any transmutation” by

virtue of the counter-Enlightenment gained

in coming to terms with violent histories of

forced migration that nonetheless gave rise

to multiple recombinant potentials among

African, Chinese, South Asian, European,

and Muslim diasporas. Ortíz introduced

the concept of “transculturation” in Cuban

Counterpoint: Tobacco and Sugar (1940),

showing how “the loss or uprooting of a

culture (‘deculturation’) and the creation of

a new culture (‘neoculturation’)” 2 go hand

in hand, thereby mapping altermodernity

avant la lettre.

Addressing the two commodity

crops of Cuba’s agricultural economy as

allegorical personages, Ortíz’s text acts as

a fertile interpretive source for grasping

how subversive Lam’s intentions really

were when he said The Jungle, “has nothing

to do with the real countryside of Cuba,

where there is no jungle but woods, hills

and open country, and the background of

the picture is a sugar cane plantation.” 3

Where the title of his 1943 masterwork

appropriates a key trope of primitivist

discourse to resignify la selva (‘the

jungle’) as el monte, a sacred clearing in

the forest (which has correspondences in

European folklore), the cognate term la

meleza (‘the undergrowth’) positions his

creaturely hybrids in a subtle critique of

plantation slavery. In the vertical rhyming

between the sugar cane stalks and their

dancing limbs, we behold a subaltern ritual

performed at night (for the deep blue

background casts the scene in moonlight

even as amber and green foreground tones

evoke illumination by firelight), opening

a line of flight into uncharted realms of

possibility. Since the hybrids are fully

immanent to the undergrowth, in their

transculturative dance they constitute

a rhizome, a term philosophers Gilles

Deleuze and Felix Guattari employ to

distinguish arborescent root systems, such

as oak and pine, which organize growth in

dichotomous hierarchies, from strawberries,

cassava, and mangrove, plants which create

unpredictably interconnective relationships

with their environment, thereby facilitating

the transmutation of identity on the part

of all elements swept up in a rhizomorphic

assemblage. 4

The femme-cheval is another hybrid

figure constantly recurring across Lam’s

Afro-Cuban production from 1942 onwards.

Addressing the psychic state the Santeria

worshipper enters into when the orisha

is said to cross the border separating

gods and mortals, taking possession of

the devotee by “riding” him or her like a

horse, the femme-cheval visualizes what

happens to human identity in the liminal

state of ecstatic trance, which was a line

of inquiry Zora Neale Hurston pursued

Movie Still from The Living Gods of Haiti, Haiti 1947-51


Wifredo Lam

Untitled 1974

in her travelogue, Tell My Horse (1938), and

which avant-garde film-maker Maya Deren

addressed in The Divine Horsemen (filmed

between 1947 and 1951 but completed

in 1977). In border-crossing practices

that allow glimpses of the multiple

identities within reach once the human

is understood as a process of becoming

rather than a fixed or final state of being,

Lam was one of the first twentiethcentury

modernists to grasp the egoloss

in ecstatic experience as a gateway

to fresh possibilities for shared modes

of belonging in a post-Enlightenment

world. Where, in Lam’s poetic space of

transculturation, “the pretensions of the

human ego are set aside for a complete

surrender to an all-encompassing force

that is not unlike the Romantic sublime and

certainly signifies the surrender of Lucumi

devotees to the will of the orisha,” 5 the

rhizomes he set into motion as a result

of his multiple journeys, from Cuba to

Spain and Paris and back again, deliver

aesthetic experiences that continue to to

resonate with the global challenges we face

in an era still struggling to come to terms

with the ethics and politics of multiplicity.



1. Pierre Mabille, “The Jungle,” Tropiques n 12, 1945, reprinted in Michael Richardson and Kryztof

Filakowski, Refusal of the Shadow: Surrealism and the Caribbean, London and New York:

Verso, 1996, 211 and 212.

2. Fernando Coronil, ‘Introduction to the Duke University Press Edition,’ in Fernando Ortíz, Cuban

Counterpoint: Tobacco and Sugar [1940 trans. Harrient de Onis], Durham NC: Duke University

Press, 1996, xxvii.

3. Wifredo Lam cited in Max-Pol Fouchet, Wifredo Lam, Barcelona: Ediciones Poligrafa, S.A.,

1976, reprinted Paris: Editions Cercle d’art, 1989, 198.

4. Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, “Rhizome,” in Deleuze and Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus

[1980 trans. Brian Massumi] Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, 3 - 26.

5. Lowery Stokes Sims, ‘The Postmodern Modernism of Wifredo Lam,’ in Kobena Mercer ed.

Cosmopolitan Modernisms, London and Cambridge MA: Institute of International Visual Arts

and MIT Press, 2005, 90.


Publication © Galerie Gmurzynska 2015

For the works by Jean-Michel Basquiat and Wifredo Lam:

© 2015, ProLitteris, Zurich

Documentary Images of Wifredo Lam SDO Wifredo Lam


Krystyna Gmurzynska

Mathias Rastorfer

Mitchell Anderson


Jeannette Weiss, Daniel Horn


Alessandra Consonni

Cover design:

Louisa Gagliardi

Design by OTRO

James Orlando

Brady Gunnell


Jonathan Fineberg

Anthony Haden-Guest

Kobena Mercer

Annina Nosei


Grafiche Step, Parma




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