Wifredo Lam’s Les Amis II, 1972: Behind Lam’s iconography
Miami— November 7, 2021— Wifredo Lam (Cuban, 1902–1982) is considered one of the most important artists of the 20th century. This month, we celebrate his legacy by featuring a seminal work from his later years: Les Amis II (1972). A highly praised and widely studied artwork, Les Amis II is a pivotal work with complex iconography that offers unique insight into Lam’s inner mystical existence through his transfigurative figures and symbols.
Lam was a Cuban-born artist of Sino-African descent. His distinctive style combined surrealism and cubism with the spirit and forms of the Caribbean. He shook the assumptions of Western and European-centered modernism by introducing the symbolism of his Afro-Cuban roots, exploring themes of social injustice, spirituality, and rebirth that defined a new way of painting for a post-colonial world. Lam’s nuanced cross-cultural influences, including Santería and Chinese ink-wash painting, have also been key characteristics throughout his career. He commonly painted mythical figures with fragmented, geometrical bodies and often used a combination of human and animal parts and faces that resembled the African carvings that fascinated him, as they did to his longtime friend and supporter Pablo Picasso.
After working in Europe, Lam’s return to Cuba in 1941 meant, above all, significant stimulation for his imagination and a pivotal moment for the exteriorizations of his inner worlds. At this time, Lam became fascinated with the Santería religion, where rituals and beliefs from West Africa overlay with aspects of Catholicism. Most of Lam’s iconography was born during this period, drawing upon the wealth of his multiracial heritage. Les Amis II brings together many of these symbols and characters in a mature stage during his late-career.
Lam used the modernist idioms of Cubism, Surrealism, and Primitivism for his iconic figures. Such is the case of the femme-cheval or horse-headed woman, through which Lam affirms the dignity of Afro-Cuban women and opposes the myth of exotic colonized women as existing to fulfill the sexual desires of the Western male. The disembodied head in the lower left of Les Amis II appears to be Elegua—the deity in charge of guarding and opening the door to the spirit world, who is always present at Santeria ceremonies and often represented in Cuba as a bodiless head. The mask-faced figure, a continued element of Lam’s Afro-Cuban imagery, is often interpreted as a poetic reference to his homeland’s poverty and corruption. Lam was constantly inspired by his collection of Baule and Dan masks and totem poles from New Guinea, which he displayed in his Albissola studio, conscious not to strip them of their context, something he considered an exploitation of the black soul and their histories. The small round heads connected to other characters by an umbilical cord represent Orishas, divinities of nature from the Yoruba religion, mediators between the human and spiritual realm. Lam’s supernatural figures enter into a state of transformation that exemplifies the transculturation of Lam’s practice, commingling Afro-Cuban and Chinese elements with imaginative and far-ranging freedom.
The importance of this magnificent painting lies in the coming together of Lam’s most iconic characters, all in an intimate but very complex image that sparks the interest of many art connoisseurs. This exceptional piece has also been featured in the artist’s most relevant scholarly publications, including Wifredo Lam’s Catalogue Raisonné, Volume II (2002); Wifredo Lam (1989) by poet and humanist Max-Pol Fouchet; and Wifredo Lam and the International Avant-Garde 1923-1982 (2002) by art historian and modern and contemporary art curator, Lowery Stokes Sims.
In case you missed it, click here for Tresart’s Focus On: Wifredo Lam.
For more information on Wifredo Lam’s Les Amis II (1972) and other important works by the artist, email email@example.com.
Photo: Les Amis II, 1972 by Wifredo Lam