Welcome to the Jungle of Wifredo Lam

For much of his childhood, Eskil Lam grew up 500 miles from his famous artist father. Now tending to the archives of this groundbreaking Afro-Cuban painter, he learns legions about the man behind the paintings, and the father he hardly knew.

Welcome to the Jungle of Wifredo Lam

Rue de La Roquette winds as only a Parisian street can, slicing at acute angles past cobblestone streets. During the nineteenth century, this was a desolate area, defined by the ominous Roquette Prisons. At night, the streets rang with the clang and wet smash of the guillotine, rolled out for public beheadings up until the turn of the twentieth century. Now, the prison bars and severed heads have been replaced with trendy cafes, falafel shops and thrift stores. The permanent fixture of homeless men in ragged leather jackets gather outside of a cheery natural foods store. They encircle the public toilet with gruff conversation every morning, surrounded by a rug of sleeping mastiffs and empty beer cans. Further down the block, neighborhood fixture Théâtre de la Bastille advertises the next season of performance-art black box theater. And across the street sits the one-room archive of the artist Wifredo Lam.

Walk through the burgundy gate to a courtyard and a wall of mailboxes. Continue down the path to the right, lined with shrubs, to a buzzer and a full-length mirror. Enter through the vestibule, then through the archive door itself, a wall of solid metal. At ten a.m. in mid-June, the archive is pitch black. Eskil Lam, 54, archive owner and the artist’s eldest surviving son, unlocks the door, pulls up the metal blinds, and begins the day. Sunlight reveals a disheveled collection of papers, photographs and art books. Paintings awaiting appraisal on a side table peer up through thick plastic coverings. The room is covered in bookshelves. Almost an entire wall is devoted to exhibit and auction catalogs, ranging from the 1980s to the modern day. Another is devoted to monographs, another to secondary sources. But most of the archive is filled with black folders, dossiers holding records of paintings, drawings and sculptures — everything given a name, a number, and a home.

Eskil Lam charges up his desktop computer, pausing to wave at colleagues walking by his window, which faces the courtyard. An arc of salt and pepper hair encircles his head like a laurel crown. His eyebrows furrow as he strums his fingers, waiting for the screen to brighten. Standing at well over six feet, he towers over the tables in this hobbit hole of an office. There’s something comfortably regal in his carriage, the way he watches over this kingdom of artifacts. Perhaps it’s a remnant of his days as a pilot, nearly two decades spent flying. Logged in, he swoops down to the computer, checking his email, and then listening to voicemails. Soon he sighs and slows down, sinking into his seat and into the day ahead.

Eskil Lam in the archive of his father, Wifredo Lam, in Paris.
Eskil Lam in the archive of his father, Wifredo Lam, in Paris.

Wifredo Lam (1902-1982) was one of the giants of modern art. His art earned him a place among the pantheon of twentieth century intellectuals and artists, and he counted men like André Breton and Pablo Picasso among his collaborators and friends. His paintings have been described as both of and beyond his native Cuba, speaking to something universal through the daring sublimity of his imagery. They feature figures at once distressing and familiar, jarring, jagged and voluptuous; birds, horses, and hybrid-humans slipping between sugarcane stalks; shapes engaging in a timeless dance across hundreds of canvases.

Born in 1961, Eskil was the first son of Wifredo Lam and Lou Laurin, a Swedish painter over thirty years younger than Wifredo. Two sons followed, all of them tumbling over canvases and paintbrushes at a young age: Timour in 1962 and Jonas in 1969. Eskil is the one who has remained fully entrenched in the world of Wifredo Lam, surrounded on all sides by his father’s work. He has taken on the yoke of preservation, in a personal and professional battle to understand how to best remember a man through his work. He has become the keeper of his father’s memories.

Three of Europe’s premier modern art museums — the Reina Sofia in Barcelona, the Tate Modern in London, and The Centre Pompidou in Paris — will all hold exhibits focused on or including Lam soon, much as the artist himself traversed borders with ease. With the first of the series starting in fall 2015, the archive has become a hub for curators, art historians and museum personnel. Eskil and vice manager Dorota Dolega–Ritter revise catalogue descriptions, discuss layout with curators, and sort through the paper sea of bureaucracy every day.

Through the boxes of letters, auction catalogues, and carefully cut out articles, the archive exhales charcoal dust and aged ink. Yet Eskil remembers a different smell from another room lined with paintings, with more sunlight, a more biting slap. You could smell that studio before you entered, Eskil remembers, falling back into time…

Wifredo Lam’s studio rests in Albissola Marina, a coastal town and artist’s enclave in northwestern Italy, overlooking the Mediterranean. Most of the year, starting in the early 1960s, Wifredo lives here, surrounded by his paints and the sea. He lives in a house that he constructed, the large windows overlooking a sculpture garden, a hill of shrubbery, and the Mediterranean beyond.

Across Europe, Eskil and his brothers live with their mother, Lou Laurin-Lam, on Rue de la Convention in the 15th arrondissement, a quiet and distinguished neighborhood filled with stately apartment buildings and quaint green squares. The couple agreed early on that Lou would remain with the boys in Paris for their schooling, while Wifredo worked at his studio in Albissola. Once a month, he returns north to seethe family.

An enormous stack of letters Wifredo sent home from Albissola remains in the archive today. Strapped together with twine, they tell the story of a father raising his children from over 500 miles away. Colorful ink in fuchsia, purple and turquoise fills the letters and the envelopes themselves. Between messages of “missing you” and tales of the seaside, tiny figures dance in the margins. Bulls peek their heads around the address lines. Birds fly alongside the multiple stamps, wings outstretched towards the edges. When the school year ends, the Parisians — Lou, Eskil, Timour, and Jonas — trek out to the Italian coastline. There, Eskil finds himself at the threshold of his father’s world.

Turpentine can cut nose hairs. It’s a heady smell that snakes its way directly to the back of the head and sticks there, determined. In early photos of the studio, Wifredo stands tall in dark slacks and wide collared white shirts. He’s in a large white room with unadorned walls and a twelve-foot ceiling. Paint cans of all sizes arrange themselves in a honeycomb of colors. Stacks of canvases, stretchers, wood, cloth and nails push against the walls. And the paintings, in all states of completion, stretch towards the viewer. A piece of charcoal in hand, Eskil sits in a corner, making swirls on a patch of canvas while across the room, stretched on the ground, Wifredo sweeps his arm across a canvas in wide strokes, tracing the outline of a bird, the wings sharp enough to slice through skin. In the summer heat, everything shimmers, the paint freshly laid. Little Eskil might stumble and step on the canvas, shoe prints smearing the outlined figures. Wifredo just smiles and continues to sketch.

Wifredo Lam in his studio in 1964.<span class="_Credit">Photo courtesy of Eskil Lam, photographer unknown</span>
Wifredo Lam in his studio in 1964.Photo courtesy of Eskil Lam, photographer unknown

In 1967, Wifredo and Lou take Eskil and Timour to Cuba, when Wifredo coordinates the transportation of the 23rd Salon de Mai exhibition. That summer, hundreds of artists from across Europe and Latin America descend on Havana: Picasso, Cardénas, César, Appel, de Kooning, Calder, Magritte, Arp. They strap canvas to a wood grid, sketch out a spiral broken into sections, each one granted to a single artist. Over the course of two days, they construct Cuba Colectiva, a visual love poem to the Cuban Revolution. For six-year-old Eskil, this trip means sun, swimming, and more of his dad’s artist friends: life in bountiful armfuls, laughing, sea spray and rum-splashed beards. July in Cuba means sweat that never dries and the persistent smell of mangos at the end of the season. The lingering smoke of cars along Havana’s Calle 23, whispered sweet nothings along the Malecón seawall. And, of course, the pervasive smell of turpentine, cloaking everything in the familiar smell of home.

“I do make a difference between my Dad and Wifredo Lam.” Eskil says. “When I work at the archive and work with my father, there’s a part of me that distances a little bit and refers to Wifredo Lam the artist. I do tend to make a difference because otherwise it would be difficult to work in such proximity, very close. It allows me to operate.” No Lam paintings grace the walls of Eskil’s home in Paris. At home, Wifredo is Dad, memories and photographs; his birds, horses, and hybrid humans remain in the archive and in galleries across the world.

“When it came to the early life, he was actually quite private and didn’t share much.” Eskil reflects. In interviews filmed later in his life, Wifredo presents as confident, relaxed and self-assured, even after his stroke. When he talks about his art, there are few hesitations. Turning often towards the interviewer to assure that someone is following him, he then dives back again into explanations of his own work, rife with political motivations and personal symbology. Yet his own life, the early years, remained undisclosed to his children during his life. Now, the archive provides answers for Eskil.

Wifredo Lam was born on December 8, 1902 in the city of Sagua La Grande, on the northern coast of Cuba. He was the youngest of eight children born to Enrique Yam-Lam, a Cantonese man born in 1820, and Ana Serafina Castilla, an Afro-Cuban woman born in 1862. They lived on the border of these two cultures: in a Chinese immigrant community, close to a largely Afro-Cuban neighborhood. Sweeping Cuban countryside surrounded the town, acres and acres of sugarcane and shrubbery. Young Wifredo fears the ghosts in those forests; spectral figures conjured by his family in hushed tones.

Wifredo remembered his father as a stern man, prone to lecturing his children on Chinese folktales. On stationary from the Hotel Havana Libre, he sketched out his life in clearly delineated sections: “My father, who came from Canton, was of a most severe character. He maintained at all times a distance between himself and his children. His was a presence full of enigmas and questions for us kids. Who was he?” Eskil only remembers one mention of his grandfather. Even then, it’s only the silhouette of a hunched figure, speaking in broken Spanish.

One image Wifredo returned to constantly in his art and discussions of such is an encounter with the shadows of bats dancing on his bedroom door.

It is late morning in Sagua La Grande. The year is 1907. Young Wifredo lies in bed listening to the voices of his family floating through the closed door. From the ceiling, breaking his silent reverie emerges an elongated cloak of night, a silhouette stretched against the walls. It’s a bat and it’s more than a bat; it’s a spiritual being, peeking into his room from another realm. Suddenly the sounds and smells of the room amplify. Trotting horses boom like timpani drums, voices distort and land on the walls with physical presence, the light itself seems to twist and announce itself with increased clarity, unabashed pride. Years later, he writes: “For the first time, I feel the vertigo of solitude, the distance between objects…In this small space, I experience for the first time the fear of being nothing more than a thing among things, a presence confronted by nameless objects.”

Growing up in Sagua La Grande, Wifredo draws with a steady hand, aided by an acute ability to create the essence of an image with a few strokes. In 1923, a 21-year old Wifredo started his life in Madrid as a painter. In photos from that era, Wifredo strikes quite a profile: angular facial features under a wide-brimmed hat, sharp shoulders slicing down to a thin waist, flaring out to Oxford Bags, pants with wide legs and a crisp front crease.

Wifredo finds artist communities in Madrid and the arid medieval town of Cuenca. In his letters from the late 1920s, he writes of finding love: “walking down Calle de Alcalas, I saw Eva for the first time. I was struck by her grave beauty. Thin, always dressed in black, olive skin, black hair, and those deeply melancholy eyes, she came from Extremadura,” a poor region of western Spain. Eva Piriz and Wifredo Lam marry in 1929.

In one letter, Eva’s scrawled handwriting fills three small pieces of paper. It is early in their marriage; Wifredo has gone away on business and Eva misses him dearly. More than anything, the last few lines stick, a torrent of young love:

“I hate you, I hate you, I love you, I love you, no no or yes yes yessssss mi negro, my life, my dear, my soul, my dream, my martyr, my sweetheart, my torment, my joy, my sweetie love. My everything. With my life and soul I love you.”

On the page lies the imprint of Eva’s lips, a perfect curve of red-soaked fibers.

Tragedy strikes quickly. A year after their marriage, they have their first son, Wifredo. A year later, first wife, then son succumb to tuberculosis.

Back in Cuba, Serafina, Wifredo’s mother, writes him in twisting spindly letters: “Dearest son, with great sadness I received the news of the death of your poor Eva. It was a surprise…we didn’t believe that her sickness had been so advanced…we prayed for her health, God had other plans…Wifredo, take care of yourself and drink lots of fish oil because you know how that disease is very contagious and you being in contact with her, you should go to the doctor…That’s how it is Wifredo: to be the most disgraced and distressed is the burden we came to this Earth to bear.”

Serafina, the 69-year old matron of the Lam family, holds onto Wifredo with the thin umbilical cord of pencil strokes. These letters begin and end with formalities: “My dearest son: following, I wish you health and joy in response to your previous letter” and “remember your brothers and sisters, your nephews and nieces and all of your friends that ask for you. Asking nothing more of God, receive the love and blessings of your mother, Serafina.” Only between these formalities rest the stories of sorrow, the lamentations, the money sent abroad, the lack of work, and the deep-seated wishes for reunification: “Eleven years that you’ve been over there…Wifredo, you can’t imagine how much I want to see you, day and night you have been on my mind since you left.” Yet Wifredo would remain in Europe for almost another decade before returning home, scarred by years of war.

Little mention was made of Eva in Eskil’s childhood, little talk of those deeply emotional sunken eyes, the thick black hair and bright red lipstick. Instead, Wifredo talked about the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939).

Still reeling in grief, hearing echoes of his son’s cries through the streets of Madrid, Wifredo decides to give up painting for several years and give his life and body to the country that had given him his love. Enlisting with the Republican force, he defends his city during the Battle of Madrid in November 1936, witnessing atrocities on all sides. He later works in an arms factory before retreating farther east and escaping for Paris in 1938.

The walls of the archive are covered in bookshelves that house everything from books of Wifredo’s art to collections of his drawings and sketches.
The walls of the archive are covered in bookshelves that house everything from books of Wifredo’s art to collections of his drawings and sketches.

Decades later, we can imagine the midnight flashbacks that Eskil recalls from his mother’s stories. Wifredo jolts awake in his Parisian bedroom. It’s 1966 and the streets are quiet on this April evening. Beside him lies the sleeping figure of Lou. As his eyes adjust to the dark, he steadies himself. Next door, Eskil and Timour sleep soundly. A passing cab flashes its headlights outside; shadows elongate on the ceiling then pass. Peace reigns. Yet still bomb blasts ring in his ears. He gently shakes Lou awake, not for the first time. And so Wifredo once more unloads the sounds of war, the smells of death, the sights of mutilated bodies and the deep sense of dread. He remembers filling emptied grenades with food rations for his civilian partner, the scarcity biting at his stomach. These years remain with Wifredo, but they stay beyond the paint. No soldiers storm the frame of Wifredo’s work, no blood issues forth from screaming mouths. Instead, forest figures take arms against invisible enemies; daggers and spears slice across the canvas in a swirling battle, commanding space both physically and politically.

During the 1940s, Wifredo Lam paints his way to prominence. He befriends the likes of Picasso and Breton, Césaire and Char during his years in Paris and the French- Caribbean isle of Martinique. Eskil vividly remembers his father’s tale of escape from Vichy France. In the days leading up to the Nazi invasion of Paris, hundreds of thousands of Parisians escape their homes for relative safety in the countryside or abroad. The streets swell with a desperate crowd as people of all ages cart their lives away in wheelbarrows, on bicycles, and in sagging cars. Wifredo and his friends escape on one of the last trains out; when it breaks down, they continue the 350-mile journey on foot to Bordeaux, another 400 miles on foot to Marseilles, then eventually taking a steamer to Martinique. It is during this period that Lam further deepens his artistic and personal participation to the Surrealist community.

Then, finally, after seventeen years apart, Wifredo returns home.

Havana has changed. Looming hotels shadow the sidewalks. Prostitutes and gambling dominate the streets. Foreigners crowd out Cubans from private business, particularly those of African descent, driving them into deep poverty. Disgusted with the commercialization and exploitation of his home, Wifredo takes a deep dive into his spiritual and cultural past, focusing on the Afro-Cuban experience. In 1942, he starts charcoal sketches for a monumental work. The eight-foot paper features bulbous bodies contorted in a forest of sugarcane, leering out at the viewer like so many fallen angels. He names the piece La Jungla — in reference not to the jungles of Cuba (of which there are none) but to the internal turmoil and inherently surrealist Afro-Cuban experience. Upon completion, the painting quickly solidifies Wifredo’s status as a living legend. Disarming and inviting, Lam’s work reimagined the role of the Cuban artist in the 20th century as one to challenge, confront, and twist traditional understandings of spirituality, power, and politics in the Caribbean.

By the time Eskil and his brothers arrive, in the 1960s, Wifredo has spent decades in the limelight, still calm and steady. This is Eskil’s childhood: picnics and dinners with artist friends, laughing and rapid-fire conversation across the table in Spanish, French, Italian and Swedish; trips to gallery openings, Eskil and his brothers zooming past in photos, their faces a blur of teeth, big eyes, and thick black hair, Wifredo’s paintings in sharp relief behind them.

In the early 1970s, the entire family journeys to South Asia for winter vacations, camera equipment in hand. Eskil becomes Wifredo’s photo assistant on these trips. They shuttle from monument to monument; to the edge of beauty, switching lenses, changing out film. These are their closest moments, Eskil remembers, their relationship united by these sweeping vistas. In one photo, dated 1973, Eskil and Wifredo sit side-by-side on an elephant, a rug sweeping down the animal’s side. Eskil’s hair falls in a mop around his forehead; Wifredo’s sticks up in a shock of black and white; both stare at the camera, bemused.

Eskil remembers breakfast peppered with world politics, Wifredo coming to the table ready to discuss the latest battle, treaty, progress and lack thereof towards decolonization and liberation of the Third World. He sought to understand the world with mind, body and soul. Even when confined to his wheelchair, the left side of his body paralyzed, his eyes still sparkled as he discussed the importance of the art: “It aggravates me that in Paris they would sell masks and African idols as trinkets. In my paintings, I dare to place those Black objects in the setting of their landscape and their own worlds,” he says in an interview from 1980. Countless academics have touted Lam as the decolonizing artist, bringing a consciousness to his painting of the “primitive,” transforming the objectifying gaze of the Surrealist into an act of liberation.

Despite their international heritage, Eskil and his brothers grew up decidedly European. “The Cuban side was very peripheral,” he insists. At home in Paris with their mother, they spoke French and Swedish; with Dad they spoke French with a smattering of Spanish. “We knew about it, of course, we couldn’t not know it, but we lived a life that was much more close to Sweden and France.” Eskil’s only trip to Cuba was as a young child, in 1967. Nowadays, little to no contact exists with the Cuban side of his family. Cuba continues to tout Wifredo as a national artistic hero, emblematic of the universal power and appeal of the country’s culture. Yet today the only connection between the Lam family and Cuba lives on the canvas.

The story of an archive begins at the end.

1978: Eskil is in boarding school in Normandy when he hears the news of his father’s stroke. Back at home; Wifredo has aged twenty years in a short week. Once spritely and sharp, he now sits resigned in a wheelchair, limited to drawing with pastels and charcoal. Whereas his paintings had followed a strictly stylized constant reinvention of familiar symbols, now they trace the outline of his youth, the familiar vegetation of northern Cuba.

Even as a child, Eskil had wanted to pilot airplanes. While his father painted in the studio, he dreamt of flying. In the late 1970s, he visits a friend living in Oakland, attending flight school. He is enthralled. Eskil stuffs his bag with applications and brochures, returning home to Paris, but already ready to return across the ocean. He enrolls in the Sierra Academy Aeronautics in Oakland, California. Life is a constant string of theoretical courses in the morning and practical flight time in the afternoon and evening.

On September 11, 1982, Wifredo Lam passes away in Paris.

After Wifredo’s passing, his widow Lou Laurin-Lam begins the archive. Eskil continues flight school in California, eventually working in San Francisco and Las Vegas. He works hard as a flight instructor, building flight time and experience. By the early 1990s, he has flown over 3,000 hours professionally, in single- to ten-passenger planes and is preparing to man larger planes. Then, from 1990 to 1991, the international art market witnesses a massive crash following the Gulf War. Eskil’s mother needs help. In 1993, Eskil returns home.

“When the material became too much for her to handle, I left California to help her for a few months,” he recalls. “Those few months became years and I never went back.” Over the years, Eskil takes control of the archive. “It came very naturally,” he says. “Since I am the eldest, he [my father] did say jokingly one day that I would have to take care of the estate — probably without realizing how complex it would be.”

Those early years took work. Paris had changed since he left in 1980. By 1993, President François Mitterrand had transformed the city physically and institutionally through a series of social programs and massive architectural projects. Now it was Eskil’s turn to encounter a city transformed. Eskil began life again in Paris, reconnecting with old friends from school and starting fresh. The work resembled nothing he had seen before: international multi-lingual conversations, negotiations around huge sums of money, the quirks of private collectors, and the overall seriousness of the industry, the self-importance of high culture.

His flying days have long faded into the past: It has been over twenty years since the last time Eskil commandeered a plane professionally. Now, the loud world of art mercantilism has become his own. Running the archive is a full-time job, alongside being a father of a teenage son.

Back at the archive, Eskil speaks quickly and quietly into the phone, talking to the high school guidance counselor. Brow furrowed, taking notes, he looks like every other dad of a teenager in a big city, caught in the indecipherable maze of high school admissions.

Conversation over, Eskil rests in his chair again, the evening light drawing shadows on the bookshelves. Starting up his computer, Eskil turns on Spotify, opens up Google Maps, satellite view, and scrolls aimlessly across the city. Soon the cursor has left Parisian city limits and he’s traveling through strings of small towns separated by the French countryside. Buildings give way to highways, which give way to a single road, cutting through town after town until: “There it is,” he whispers. On the screen he’s settled on his country house. It rests in a small hamlet bisected by a river and surrounded by hills. He watches the screen for a while, as if waiting to be transported out of Rue de la Roquette into his country sanctuary, more forêt than jungla. In the end he sighs, closes the browser, and packs up.

It has been another day filled with authenticating paintings, editing museum catalogues, and organizing exhibitions. Worn, Eskil Lam shuts the metal blinds, shuts the lights, and leaves. Meanwhile, the letters and personal effects return to their boxes, quietly enduring another night.