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Wifredo Lam

b. 1902 Sagua La Grande, Las Villas–d. 1982 París

In the 1970s, Wifredo Lam was working on a series of paintings in small and medium formats. It was a more intimate approach to his art, and at the same time a mature synthesis of his aesthetic ideas.

In the 1960s, Lam had focused on extremely large-scale paintings in which he consolidated the conceptual and morphological richness that sprang from his intense artistic development in the 1940s and 1950s. This was a cycle that began with certain pieces from the late 1950s, such as Amanecer (Dawn), Cerca de las Islas Vírgenes (Near the Virgin Islands), and La Sierra Maestra, all from 1959. These works serve as a prelude or indicator of the changes that his art underwent in the following decade. Among the essential pieces from this period is El Tercer Mundo (The Third World) (1965-1966), which Lam deftly painted on an enormous canvas that had been placed in one of the largest galleries in the Museum of Fine Arts in Havana. Years later, he stated in an interview that this painting was “my artistic tribute to the Cuban Revolution.”

Together with journalist Carlos Franqui, Lam was also one of the principal organizers of the Salon de Mai exhibition in Havana (1967), which boasted the participation of more than a hundred intellectuals, writers, and art critics from all over the world. At this event, foreign and Cuban artists (including Erró, César, René Portocarrero, Mariano, and Amelia Peláez) collaborated on a large-format collective mural, based on a sketch by Lam. The artist’s political commitment to the island also motivated him to participate in the Cultural Conference of Havana (1968), during which twelve of his works were exhibited in the Panorama of Art in Cuba show, which took place at the National Museum in Havana.

Bird on A Woman’s Head is a painting that beautifully captures the aesthetics of those years, and it is a standout among Lam’s work of the 1970s. The bird placed on the woman’s head can have an array of meanings: it could represent a ceremony of “purification” (limpieza) according to Santería—a religion of African origin brought to Cuba by Nigerian slaves—or in the same context, the presence of the Orisha divinity, or santo, riding the head of an initiate. Lam’s oil paintings from the 1970s were closely related to the pastels and engravings he was doing at the time, and his body of work from this period was extremely consistent. It was a period in which the artist extracted from his previous experiences the entire arsenal of techniques that he deployed in his art, fundamentally in his paintings but also in his engravings and ceramics—two areas of artistic expression in which he left his indelible mark on contemporary art.

                                                                       —Roberto Cobas Amate

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