Wifredo Lam at the Tate Modern

Wifredo Lam at the Tate Modern

Wifredo Lam, Horse-headed Woman 1950, oil paint on canvas, The Rudman Trust © SDO Estate of Wifredo Lam

This time last year, as a result of a short family visit to Paris, I happened upon the Lam exhibition at the Centre George Pompidou. Being an avid Cuban art enthusiast, the joy at seeing a Cuban artist on show at a major art gallery should have eclipsed all pernickety criticisms and shortcomings. However, the display, although filled with wonderful works, left me with the sensation that the exhibition had failed to capture the heart of Wifredo Lam. The curation was chaotic- maze like, large overwhelming works were forced into small spaces where they could not breathe and were fighting against one another, although attempting to be chronological, the space dividers made it difficult for viewers to be directed correctly, and the importance of Lam’s experimental media stage was lost in the plethora of oil on canvas pieces. This was topped off by a middle aged French man approaching me towards the end of the show asking me if I was Cuban, to which I replied no- and then him launching into a rant about how Lam’s work was clichéd in its aggressiveness, to quote him directly ‘Lam wants to show the tragic difficulties of being a black man in Paris and knows that’s how he will become famous, it’s the black’s man’s cliché, his work leaves me feeling abused and unsettled’. It appeared to me that it never occurred to him how a black man in Paris could feel abused and unsettled in a climate of xenophobia, especially pertinent today.

This sentiment made me hesitant to visit the Tate’s show, comprising of exactly the same works. However, encouraged by a friend, I visited the show in its opening days and was greatly relieved, pleased and elated at Matthew Gale’s sensitive, intelligent and beautifully curated show.

The Tate’s display of Wifredo Lam’s work captures his periodic focus on the translucence of Cuban light, a feature that was lost in the Paris display. Although paying homage to a European stylistic influence and reflecting Lam’s connection to the Surrealists and Cubists, Gale’s curation never loses focus of the element that emphasises Lam’s wonderful unique-ness, his Cuban identity. The show follows both the personal and political strands of the artist’s life and draws attention to the Cuban artistic and philosophical circles Lam frequented. Faces such as Alejo Carpentier and Carlos Enríquez Gomez popped up frequently in photographs; Lydia Cabrera and Fernando Ortiz, two very influential philosophers and historians were paid homage to—and yet the European slant was not lost amongst that. It is undoubtable that Lam was influenced greatly by André Breton, Man Ray, Pablo Picasso and many names that we are all so familiar with, however the Tate’s display highlights the counter influence Lam also had on many of these artists and intellectuals. Gale’s curation emphasises Cuban culture, history and politics in a measured manner, holding both the European and Cuban influence in equilibrium. Central to this is the use of titling each room after the geographical locations works were created in. Through the use of unquestionable fact and still including important contextual information from both Cuba and Europe within wall panels, Gale sensitively manoeuvres the depiction of Cuban art within a Eurocentric context.

Although this sounds like the voice of a subjective Londoner heaping praise onto a London institution and vilifying a French institution, the truth could not be further from this. Thankfully, subjectively speaking, the Tate captured the essence of Lam’s work, framing it eloquently and sensitively within, what some people would call, a somewhat contentious context.

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