Wifredo Lam, ‘Ibaye’ 1950
Wifredo Lam
Ibaye 1950
© Tate

By August 1948, Lam was living alone in Havana. Visiting journalists found him restless and perturbed by his separation from Holzer, yet fully immersed in his painting, which he would often conduct in his abundant tropical garden, or on the tiled floor of his studio.

Several paintings around this time incorporate the figure of the femme-cheval or ‘horse-headed woman’. During Vodou and Santería rituals, known only to initiates, the worshipper is allegedly taken possession of, or ‘ridden’, by a spirit. Over time, the horse-headed women of Lam’s paintings gradually acquired more identifiably human and eroticised attributes. This was an oblique reference to the exploitation of women of mixed heritage in Cuban society, some of whom were forced, through poverty, into prostitution.

An affirmation of Black Cuban identity was explored by Lam in large-scale works featuring spectral forms and arrows. They allude to the Afro-Cuban religious traditions forced underground by colonial authorities. These works are marked by a graphic sensibility with clear lines, symmetry and concentrated applications of bright colour on sombre backgrounds.

After the 1952 military coup that installed Fulgencio Batista’s dictatorship in Cuba, Lam decided to settle more  permanently in Paris, where he was regarded as a senior contributor to surrealism. He continued to travel extensively, including extended trips to Venezuela, where he held a major exhibition in 1955.