If I had to explain conceptual art, or even all art, it is not exactly what it makes you think but what it makes you feel.
Wifredo Lam (1902-1982) sits somewhere just outside Surrealism in a Dali-esque hinterland – his most well-known style incorporates a profound fascination with the Afro-Cubanism of his youth and heritage and the years spent deeply imbedded within surrealist circles, most notably a long friendship with Andre Breton.
This embodies the core of his retrospective, a style he only started to discover in his forties when he returned to Cuba, rooted in a most interesting life.
Lam was active as a propaganda draftsman in the Spanish Civil War for the Republicans and fell in with the Surrealists in France as they all grouped together to escape encroaching German control in 1940.
The exhibition is chronological and is much larger than you might think for an artist who was quite modestly remembered by history.
To commit yourself to it, to really feel the passing of time when you try to examine everything; his works, exhibition posters and personal photographs, you see the life of a human being grow and fade in such a painfully short time.
Spending time in the exhibition is no hardship. Looking at a photograph of Lam in Madrid looking young and dandyish, it began to feel like paying one’s respects.
He found love young in Spain and married, but tuberculosis took both his wife and young son two years later.
It might be thought that this bereavement began to manifest in his art, but he decided to tap into his Cuban heritage, creating naïve portraits in a style visibly influenced by Picasso, whom he had befriended.
His is a life told through changing artistic style and place. Lam moved first from Cuba to Spain, Spain to France, France to Martinique and Martinique back to Cuba.
Through the exhibition you understand how important Afro-Cubanism is to him – a culture rooted in the West-African heritage of Cuba, mixing Catholicism, culture and pagan ritual (Voodou).
There is also an inherent symbiosis of Surrealism and the mysticism of Voodou
This rediscovery seems connected to his relatively nomadic life which, while sometimes hard to sympathise with, can be understood.
The farther away one is from one’s identity, the more passionately it may be evoked through actions, artistic or otherwise – arguably this could have been inevitable because of Lam’s lineage.
With a Chinese émigré father and a half Congolese mixed-race mother, is it possible that he never felt like he belonged during his travelling years?
It always seems that you must travel halfway round the world to find that your heart yearns for home.
His work, now strongly influenced by the contorted semi-humans of other Surrealist painters with whom he had mingled in Paris and Marseille, began creating not bucolic images of the beauty of Cuba, but expressions of ritual, culture and history.
His piece The Eternal Present depicts “the paradise that foreigners seek in Cuba, a land of pleasures and sickly-sweet music”. This is epitomised by one specific woman; a hazy mirage of a Cuban Venus.
His mural-like paintings which he begins to create in Cuba seem to draw together so much of his life.
They are dark and earthy and depict somewhere part mystical and hallucinogenic, part subconscious and emotional. Lam’s Grande Composition recalls Guernica by Picasso.
Is Surrealism’s purpose to confront the inexpressible? The trauma of war or our Freudian, hidden motives and desires? Possibly, given that Sigmund Freud had a strong influence on Surrealist writings and art.
There is also an inherent symbiosis of Surrealism and the mysticism of Voodou (voodoo) that Lam represents in his work.
Both feel otherworldly and often concern the things that lie just beneath the mundaneness of life. When back in Havana he is known to to have said: “All art is tragedy.”
There are echoes of Ibrahim El-Salahi, a Sudanese artist whose work Reborn Sounds of Childhood Dreams I usually sits opposite Lam’s The Eternal Present in the fantastic Surrealist section of Tate Modern since the new wing was opened.
There is such a similarity between their styles that one can’t help but think that somewhere, long ago in our history, the art and ritual invented by our common African ancestors (which is still alive today), was as intuitive about our inner-selves as that which, only a century ago, we were just beginning to rediscover.
The EY Exhibition: Wifredo Lam is on until January 8, 2017
The featured image shows Wilfredo Lam’s work Bélial, Emperor of the Flies (1948). All images courtesy of Tate Modern