Reading Wifredo Lam's Ceramic Swallowing and Clandestinity

with Andrea Guinta


Latin American Art

Angelina Campigotto

Toward the end of his life Cuban artist Wifredo Lam (1902-1982) settled in the small Italian town of Albisola Mare. Lam is widely esteemed in the study of modern art for his paintings such as The Jungle (1942-43) which is currently held in the Museum of Modern Art collection in New York. Quite the opposite, his ceramic works from his late period in Albisola Mare, such as Bird (1975) are overlooked. Rather than reading Lam under the Eurocentric categorizations of Cubist or Surrealist modernism, this essay will pursue the suggestion of Argentine art historian Andrea Giunta wherein which Wifredo Lam was a strategist who operated under “relativizing the absolute truths of dominant discourse” (Giunta 55). Rather than understanding Lam’s art as a derivative of European stylistic modes Lam should be understood through his intentions to speak back to colonialism. Within this line of thought his ceramic works can be comprehended not as merely “primitive” art or a hobby craft but as works of art that embody Lam’s own world. After a summary of Giunta’s assertion that Lam’s work was an “Appropriation of Appropriation”, a visual analysis of the artist’s early Spanish artworks and his later ceramic practice in Italy will demonstrate his actions of swallowing and clandestinity.  

Andrea Giunta’s 1996 text “Strategies of Modernity in Latin America” reasons that Wifredo Lam’s The Jungle (1942-3) demonstrates the tactic of “Appropriation of Appropriation” by taking the formal structures that Cubism had appropriated from African art and infusing it with his own embodied knowledge of Afro-Caribbean culture in an act of “inverted appropriation” (Giunta 62). European modernism sought a separation from the conventions of modernity. To facilitate this escape artists appropriated from foreign cultural objects which in both an act of romanization and Othering they termed “primitivism”. Supposedly such “primitive” cultural objects represented an essence that Europeans had lost within the process of industrialization and modernization. Pablo Picasso infamously lifted the forms he observed in African masks and painted them onto his figures in some of his most celebrated artworks. Within this act he had lifted iconography with little regard for its originating contexts. Such masks had been pillaged from the cultural systems they originated in and placed within European ethnographic institutions to be consumed by a curious European public. This was part of a larger colonial project that regarded Othered worldviews superficially.  

In the sixteenth century the European colonial program began the process of extracting wealth out of the Caribbean and African continent through imposing a program of slave labour. In the specific case of Lam’s homeland Cuba, the colonial industry of sugarcane plantations accumulated wealth by producing rum and other export products for Europe. Later in the 1940s Cuba was still very much subjected to the colonial gaze that sought it out as, in Lam’s own words, “a land of pleasure” (qtd. in Fouchet 183) where women were forced into prostitution as tourist commodity objects. Lam termed the state of Cuba “some sort of hell” (qtd. in Fouchet 188) filled with sexualized, colonial violence. Such context is the contingency painted in The Jungle: African masks that unlike Picasso, Lam had an embodied knowledge by way of his Godmother Mantonica Wilson, whose teachings of the Santeria Orisha spirits, were part of his childhood. A dense background of sugarcane crops represented in a stark contrast to the inviting, fantastic jungles painted by post-impressionist Henri Rousseau (as Lam points out, “He does not condemn what happens in the jungle. I do.” (qtd in. Fouchet 199)). Tightly arranged limbs and sexual organs that mesh in with and burst out of their vegetal surroundings, evoking an exploitative sex worker industry as well as suggesting that without a thoughtful look at this composition much is lost in such figurative density.  

To clarify Giunta’s strategy of inverted appropriation, much of the original meaning that was lost within Eurocentric acts of appropriation has had such space filled by contemporary concerns. These concerns were realities that only the artist Wifredo Lam could convey. The spirituality that is in Lam’s work is in the artist’s words, not “an exact symbology” but rather an indirect gesture toward his cultural backgrounds (qtd. in Mosquera 128) which include a mixture of Chinese, Latin American and African heritage. Lam’s iconography is not employed to represent a transcendent spirituality but to embody a political response to the immanent concern of the pervasive colonial project.  

Building upon strategies of Latin American modernity that Giunta does not associate with Wifredo Lam, but as this essay attempts to show regarding the artist, I turn to the strategy of swallowing. Giunta contextualizes swallowing by using Brazilian avant-garde writer Oswald de Andrade’s Anthropophagite Manifesto (1928) in which the idea of cannibalism as a taboo used to degrade the peoples of the Caribbean when they were “Othered” by European explorers is recoded and reclaimed.  

Things that are swallowed are that which are deemed powerful by the swallower; “Absorption of the sacred enemy. In order to transform him into totem” (de Andrade 26). A totem is used to affirm one’s connection to the power reified within it. A taboo holds a similar power but is restrained by negation to address it. Totem and taboo were terms used by Sigmond Freud and entwined within Western modernity’s systemization of objective truths. It is well acknowledged that many artists of modernism had read Freud and furthermore that much of Surrealism’s language was built upon his theories, but Andrade writing from a Latin American perspective states “we already had surrealist language” (Andrade 25). This manifesto swallows Freud: his definitions of totem and taboo that were engrained into the dominant colonial worldview are transformed by Andrade and any other who act upon their “anthropophagous instinct” (de Andrade 25). Not all that is transformed decays into waste within an act of swallowing as evident from the re-coding of cannibalism. The stigma initially coded into the term remains but is built upon by Andrade’s application of it within a manifesto; he charged the word with an additional meaning that suited his purposes.   

Much of the European modern art education Wifredo Lam swallowed during his earlier years in Spain was transfigured into excrement. Lam tells Max-Pol Fouchet for his 1976 book on the career of the artist, “I stuffed the whole of the Renaissance in my belly” (qtd. in Fouchet 86). It is clear what Lam means when we consider the Renaissance mode of art is what he swallowed to enable him to produce Drawing (1925). This exceptionally detailed sepia drawing of a middle-aged man is illusionistic, the man’s aging skin is rendered with such detail that he seems alive. The precise mimetic technique that Lam demonstrates in this work was what some Italian Renaissance artists considered necessary to make paintings seemingly windows to the world. The attention to the sitter’s aging process by means of a leathery texture of the skin rather than a display of the prominence of the sitter is relative to Raphael’s Portrait of Pope Julius II (1511-12) where the Pope is rendered in a less idealized manner with dark sunken eyes and drooping skin. It might seem taboo for Lam to participate in Eurocentric modes of art that would have excluded him because of his foreign status as “Other” but that is disregarded by the strategic act of swallowing. That Lam’s overall body of work does not resemble Renaissance illusionistic modes of art means that the artist swallowed these techniques whole without evidentially carrying forth what form of nourishment they might have transformed into within his later work.  

Not all that is swallowed is deemed waste. The power of eating the flesh of another can also bring a nourishment that sustains after the digestive process and lives within the artist’s work. Lam’s ceramic practice in the small Italian town of Albisola Mare did not start immediately when he built a house and studio there in 1964 despite the town being known for having a prominent ceramic community since Roman times. Lam did eventually become very enthusiastic for the medium by 1975, a point at which he said, “Frequently I couldn’t sleep… waiting to see what surprises we would have, what unexpected new tones.” (qtd. in Fouchet 220). This perhaps meant that it took him time to realize that the local ceramic tradition was worthy of being swallowed.  

Bird (1975) (fig. 4) is a grey-green round ceramic dish with a crackled texture and an abstracted bird sculpture projecting out as if placed as a meal on the centre of the dish. The bird’s wings are bent at the ends and its head is akin to an arrowpoint with four feathers swooping out on each side and two large hollowed out circles that are seemingly eyes. There are small lines and dots carved into the bird to suggest an intricate pattern but as all is in the same colour glaze there is a unity that grounds the bird to the round dish. This was a purposeful choice as some of Lam’s other ceramic works are opposingly multicoloured with added paint. The bird is characteristic to Lam’s figuration, Max Pol-Fouchet writes that at the time of his visit with Lam when this ceramic was made “On the walls hang numerous pictures representing strange birds in flight and many versions of Caribbean Cock, a frequent theme in recent years” (Fouchet 220). There are 5 different ceramics titled Bird from the same year. We might infer from this that Lam was in a process of re-swallowing his own motif whilst digesting it in tandem with the local ceramic medium.  

As many ceramic objects have utilitarian purposes, they are largely overlooked by modernity’s art institutions and generally recognized as either a craft or an ethnographic object. Although not the sole reason he pursued ceramic practice by taking the medium as seriously as he did with his painting we can infer a refusal of modernist distinctions between high art and craft. Additionally, the medium of ceramics was dominantly associated with “primitive” objects. By using this medium there is a full circle return to what modernism had appropriated from, but in this case the objects are not primitive but are part of Lam’s contemporary world.   

Wifredo Lam’s ceramic works arrive at the conclusion of Max-Pol Fouchet’s account of the artist’s career up until 1975. Fouchet writes, “His passion for ceramics is, I think, a response to deep, secret motivations” (Fouchet 220). It is unclear if this moment was Fouchet’s own lyrical creation but if not we can consider that Lam was practicing what Giunta terms, “a certain clandestinity, creating a history of schemes and wit” (Guinta 55). Overall, Lam’s body of work is elusive to objective interpretation. His figures hide knives and scissors in their figurative density; there is indeed a quality of schemes and wit to the world that Lam evokes. The strategy of clandestinity is a preservative action. It does not attract observation from the consumptive gaze. Much had been robbed from Lam’s cultural background through colonialism, therefore, to keep secrets from the art establishment means that Lam may hold onto his power without being exploited. By this point in his career his popularity meant that his work was in demand and that his viewers wanted to interpret him, but not all should face such scrutiny. Perhaps he understood that his ceramic works would remain personal to him rather than being subjected to institutionalization and intellectualization processes that can distort or invent meaning. 

 The objective “truths” of colonialism are non-operational in speaking to Wifredo Lam’s ceramic works. This is why Bird is not at the Museum of Modern Art in New York but Jungle an oil paint on canvas which is comparability more suitable to modernism is. To swallow is a strategy of inverting previous value judgements and letting one’s own digestive system determine what is nourishment and what is waste. The clandestinity of Lam’s practice is at its most potent with Bird–a Western art education did not well equip me to speak to this work and furthermore any record of its existence remains solely in Fouchet’s book and not within any digitized art collection on the Internet. I find the ceramic works of Wifredo Lam most intriguing because they negate the dominant modes of interpretation. They are not as easily consumed as his comparably more widely esteemed works (as deemed by the institution and not the artist themselves), in that sense creating a very strong world of their own.  

Angelina Campigotto

Angelina Campigotto is currently completing her undergraduate degree in the BA honours program in Visual and Critical Studies at OCAD University. She has a background in photography and integrated media and has worked as a research assistant, within digital art collections management as a student monitor at Onsite Gallery and in sports photojournalism.  

Angelina’s research interests include critical perspectives on modernity, the philosophy and politics of aesthetics, and diagnosing the production of knowledge through (post-)modern theory as it relates to visual culture. She is currently exploring the philosophical and cultural consequences of anonymity and pseudonymity as applied by modern artists for her upcoming thesis.

Works Cited 

  • de Andrade, Oswald. “Anthropophagite Manifesto,” In Art in Latin America. translated by Dawn Ades Yale University Press, 1993.   
  • Fouchet, Max-Pol. Wifredo Lam. New York: Ri bzzoli International Publications, 1976.  
  • Giunta, Andrea. "Strategies of Modernity in Latin America." In Gerardo Mosquera, ed., Beyond the Fantastic: Contemporary Art Criticism from Latin America. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press, 1996.  
  • Mosquera, Geraldo. “Modernism from Afro-America: Wifredo Lam” In Beyond the Fantastic: Contemporary Art Criticism from Latin America. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press, 1996.