Wifredo Lam



In Tate Liverpool

Wifredo Lam 1902–1982
Oil paint on canvas
Support: 1045 × 876 mm
frame: 1116 × 949 × 50 mm
Purchased 1952


Ibaye is an oil painting on canvas by Cuban artist Wifredo Lam. An abstracted figure, pictured from waist level up and set against a smoky grey background, occupies the centre of the canvas. This clearly delineated horned figure is depicted in a shallow space while patterns and colours suggest depth. To the left of the face a headdress flows downward and rests on the shoulder. A longer section of the headdress trails down like a veil in front of the body on the opposite side. A small recumbent horned figure painted in cream lies between the main figure’s chest and the trailing veil. This small patterned figure, with its feet pointing upwards, is cloaked in a shroud-like garment. The painting uses a limited palette in gradations of grey and cream.

Ibaye was made by Lam in 1950, while he was living in Cuba. One possible source for the title is the Ewe word ‘baye’, meaning witch or witchcraft. However, as curator Lowery Stokes Sims has observed, the painting also displays references to European art. In the late 1930s maternal themes surfaced in Lam’s work, including paintings of women holding children such as Mother and Child 1939 (Museum of Modern Art, New York). This reflects the Renaissance iconography of the Christ child in an analogous position (Sims 2002, p.17). Ibaye partly reflects this theme, but Lam’s time in Spain and his admiration for Francisco Goya (1746–1828) may also be evident. As Sims has observed: ‘the manila and comb of prosperous Spanish matrons are mimicked by the accumulation of forms at the top of the head and the cascading elements to one side of the neck’ (Sims 2002, p.227).

Lam was born and grew up in Cuba but was of mixed cultural heritage. His father was Chinese and his mother was of African-Spanish descent. Following a conservative academic training at the Academia de San Alejandro in Havana, Lam left Cuba for Europe in 1923 and furthered his academic training in European art in Madrid, where he stayed for fifteen years. He moved to Paris in 1938, encountering cubism and surrealism. He became a protégé of Picasso, later recalling: ‘What made me feel such empathy with his painting, more than anything else, was the presence of African art and the African spirit that I discovered in it’ (quoted in Fouchet 1986, p.23). His friendship with the surrealist André Breton, forged in Paris, was strengthened in Marseille in 1940–1, where Breton and other surrealists were staying at that time, including Max Ernst, André Masson and Benjamin Péret.

Upon his return to Cuba in 1941 Lam was encouraged to explore his Afro-Cuban heritage. As he later recalled:

I went to Europe to escape from my homeland. I thought this journey would resolve everything. But in Europe I encountered other problems as oppressive as those I left behind. My return to Cuba meant above all, a great stimulation of my imagination, as well as the exteriorization of my world. I responded always to the presence of factors which emanated from our history and our geography, tropical flowers and black culture.
(Quoted in Greet 2013, unpaginated.)

In the 1940s Lam repeatedly painted figures in jungle settings. The Jungle 1943 (Museum of Modern Art, New York) is perhaps the best known. Yet while these paintings were populated with spiritual figures in sacred jungle settings, Lam’s engagement with such themes was through the lens of Western modernism and his experience in Paris, Madrid and elsewhere. By 1950 Lam had dispensed with the jungle backdrop for his figures and instead set them against moody atmospheric backgrounds, such as in Ibaye.

Ibaye was shown in Europe for the first time in a solo show of Lam’s work at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London in 1952, which was accompanied by a symposium and a text by the Belgian surrealist E.L.T. Mesens.

Further reading
Max-Pol Fouchet, Wifredo Lam, Barcelona 1986.
Lowery Stokes Sims, Wifredo Lam and the International Avant-Garde, Austin 2002, pp.226–7.
Michele Greet, ‘Inventing Wifredo Lam: The Parisian Avant-Garde’s Primitivist Fixation’, Invisible Culture, no.5, 2003, https://www.rochester.edu/in_visible_cult ure/Issue_5, accessed 20 May 2016.

Beth Williamson
May 2016

Supported by Christie’s.

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Display caption

  1. Lam made this work in Havana, Cuba. He had returned home from Europe following the outbreak of the Second World War. This prompted him to explore Cuban identity and culture in his work. ‘I wanted with all my heart to paint the drama of my country’. Here, an abstracted horned figure, pictured from the waist up, is set against a smoky grey background. Lam explored African-Cuban visual culture to address themes of social injustice, nature and spirituality. Through his work, Lam was able to challenge assumptions about non-European art.

Gallery label, August 2020

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Catalogue entry

Wifredo Lam born 1902 [- 1982]

N06073 Ibaye 1950

Not inscribed
Oil on canvas, 41 1/8 x 34 1/2 (104 x 88)
Purchased from the artist through the ICA (Knapping Fund) 1952
Exh: Wifredo Lam, ICA, London, April 1952 (12) as 'Ibayé' 1950
Repr: Max-Pol Fouchet, Wifredo Lam (Paris 1976), pl.435 (dated 1947)

The artist said on 8 October 1970 that the title 'Ibaye' is related to the Voodoo cult and is probably the name of an important mystic personage, though he cannot remember its exact significance or whether it is of African or South American origin.

A possible source is the Ewe (Dahomeyan) word 'baye', meaning witch or witchcraft.

Published in:
Ronald Alley, Catalogue of the Tate Gallery's Collection of Modern Art other than Works by British Artists, Tate Gallery and Sotheby Parke-Bernet, London 1981, p.405, reproduced p.405


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