Ar(t)chives Arts

Glimpse into Wifredo Lam’s ‘The Jungle’

Despite Lam’s extensive collection of works, one particular painting persists as his most memorable

Without any context, Cuban-born artist Wifredo Lam’s The Jungle could be perceived as a wild fever dream, where surreal creatures are intertwined with the jungle’s flora. Stare at this piece for long enough, and you might convince yourself that you’re able to make sense of the jumble of limbs as you attempt to figure out which foot belongs to which creature. Or, stare at the piece for too long, and you might become more and more confused. 

Many people appear to be equally mesmerized and stumped by this painting, mainly for its unruly blend of cubist-style shapes and its restrained colour palette, with its cool blues and tinges of red and orange that aid in concealing Lam’s creatures. None of the beings in this painting clearly resemble humans, though they do share several human characteristics, such as feet, hands, and eyes. 

If one starts to examine The Jungle in all of its painstaking detail, they might find some things that appear out of place. Take for instance, in the top right corner of the artwork: a hand grasping a large set of shears. Or if we examine the jungle’s trees closer, we’ll find that their trunks resemble something else entirely: sugar cane stalks. While these two details could easily be skimmed over, they’re important hints in regards to Lam’s inspiration for this chaotic piece.

Cuba, with its history of slavery and colonialism, served as a catalyst for The Jungle, with Lam explaining, “I wanted with all my heart to paint the drama of my country,” Lam explained, “to disturb the dreams of the exploiters.” The shears and sugar cane stalks can be perceived as a commentary on the colonizers who arrived in Cuba during the sixteenth century.

Much of Lam’s work sought to celebrate Afro-Cuban spirituality and culture, and also served to change the ways in which people viewed colonized countries. Lam’s work offers an insight into the country’s diverse cultural background, and instead of focusing solely on the role that colonizers played in the country’s history, he manages to reclaim western notions of Cuba being a primitive country, utilizing them in his art to create engaging, abstract scenes. Although Lam produced an impressive variety of works throughout his career as an artist, The Jungle persists as one of his most complex works to date.


Visual by Taylor Reddam

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