The first work in this show is a beautifully fine graphite self-portrait by Cuban modernist Wifredo Lam. Take a good long look at his features, because they matter. Lam was born to a Chinese father, and a mother descended from Spanish conquistadors and slaves. Lam is black, Chinese and Latino. His heritage is written in his strong, young features and it pulses through all of his art.
The show starts with early drawings from art school, tentative visual experiments, an artist trying to find out how and what he actually wants to paint. After studying in Havana, the young Lam got a scholarship to head across the Atlantic to Madrid. Now the works become more distinct, as he dips into modernism, surrealism, reacting to and fighting in the Spanish Civil War. You can move through these early rooms pretty briskly – it’s a big show – the works are nice but not earth-shattering.
It’s only after Lam returns to Cuba while fleeing the war in 1941 that he really starts to figure his life out. Coming home, Lam was suddenly struck by the collision of cultures in Cuba, then he discovers Santeria, a mix of West African spiritualism and Catholicism, and – bam! – you’ve got Lam. All that history and culture blends together, the modernism and surrealism of Europe, the spirituality, the melting pot – his art becomes his own, a mixture of all of the above, and it’s absolutely beautiful.
Knowing that Lam was friends with the likes of Picasso, Fernand Léger, Georges Braque, Henri Matisse – the great masters of cubism and modernism – should give you a good idea of what to expect from his painting, drawings and ceramics. The works here, especially the stunning middle rooms of works from the mid-1940s to ’50s, fuse all those influences with Afro-Cuban imagery. There are deities, cheeky gods, hybrid animal/human figures, all rendered in distended, twisted, geometric swoops of paint. They’re sexual, too: boobs, bums and nads everywhere.
There’s a cartoonish element to a lot of this. Lam’s portrayal of Santeria Orishas, or deities, is incredibly childlike. Just simple, circular eyes, dots for nostrils, bared teeth, silly little horns. The little faces appear in almost every painting. They must have been massively appealing in the 1950s, a sort of return to primitive painting amid all this clever modernism. But time hasn’t been kind to them, I just can’t get over the idea that they look like something Noel Fielding would do. They make me want to tear my eyeballs out.
But if you can get over that, and God knows I tried, and succeeded, then you’ll find that Lam’s work is a mystical, spiritual, lifelong journey of self-discovery through art. He used his talents to try to make sense of cultures that clashed, of moving across the Atlantic. It’s basically modernism as identity politics, and that’s pretty powerful.