Image of Wifredo Lam's painting The Sombre Malembo, God of the Crossroads 1943

Wifredo Lam The Sombre Malembo, God of the Crossroads 1943 Private collection (The Rudman Trust) © SDO Wifredo Lam

In March 1941 Lam and Holzer embarked on a cargo ship crammed with around 300 intellectuals fleeing occupied Europe. On arriving in Martinique, which was controlled by the Vichy regime established after the Nazi invasion of France, they were consigned to an internment camp for a month. In Fort-de-France Lam and Breton met the poet Aimé Césaire and his wife Suzanne. Their journal Tropiques and Césaire’s epic poem Notebook of a Return to the Native Land affirmed the importance of Black culture in the Caribbean and the fight against colonialism.

In August 1941, Lam returned to Cuba. After eighteen years away, he saw the country with new eyes. He became acutely aware of its decadence, racism and poverty, but also rediscovered the natural landscape and became fascinated with the Santería religion, in which rituals and beliefs from West Africa were overlaid with aspects of Catholicism.

Over the next decade, Lam developed a personal style that allowed him to combine his artistic and political experience in Europe with his rediscovery of Afro-Cuban culture. He infused his paintings with the imagery and energy of Santería, showing hybrid figures which sometimes included details relating to specific Yoruba deities or Orisha, such as those seen in The Sombre Malembo, God of the Crossroads 1943. Areas of precision contrast with more open handling of paint, as if the subjects were blending back into their surroundings.