This project began in 2001 at a meeting with San Francisco State University Dean of the College of Creative Arts Keith Morrison, Fine Arts Gallery Director Mark Johnson, Cuban artist/critic Tone! (Antonio Eligio Fernandez), and me. I had been working in Cuba intermittently since 1985 and was anxious to assist in the curation of an exhibition that would highlight what we agreed were under-recognized aspects of art production there. Tone! was anxious to work on a print exhibition. After much discussion, we agreed to begin work on an exhibition surveying Cuban printmaking. By spring 2003 the current exhibition began to take shape. The first trip to Havana specifically for this exhibition occurred during winter break of 2002. I was accompanied by three students from the An Department; we conducted many interviews and created the first visual archive of prints in the collection of the Experimental Graphic Workshop in Cathedral Plaza. Since then, both Tonel and I have returned to Cuba several times. My last trip was during the 8th Bienal de La Habana in the fall of 2003. Sadly, with the new draconian resnictions on travel to and communication with Cuba introduced by the Bush administration, l think that now, more than ever, we need to learn more about this exciting and productive Caribbean neighbor. Hopefully this exhibition will add insight, understanding, and prompt discussion about Cuba.
This essay intends to provide a broad cultural picture of Havana and Port-au-Prince framed by Wifredo Lam's re-entry to Havana in August 1941, and his visit to Haiti in winter 1945-1946. One focus is on the emer- gence of an interest in, and support of, Afro-Cuban culture on the one hand, and what is known as indiginiste culture in Haiti, on the other. Lam's recognition of his heritage and his profound interest in exploring aspects of Afro-Cuban culture proved central to the development and florescence of his painting style during these years. Although there exists scholarly work that analyzes and constructs elaborate iconographic and formal analysis of Lam's paintings, I propose to counter what I consider the often overdetermined and essentializing conclusions of many fine scholars.
I intend to place Lam's paintings in an environment of pioneering efforts by an important handful of individuals, citizens or intrepid visitors and sometime residents, who were dedicated to studying, exposing, and elevating the African-based cultures under consideration. In both Cuba and Haiti this heritage had long been deprecated, misunderstood and blatantly misrepresented. Wifredo Lam's life is interconnected with the refugee status of a displaced European avant-garde and their encounter with Caribbean intellectuals and cultural workers. For Lam was simultaneously a refugee and a national. It is as Rene Morales, now associate curator at the Miami Art Museum (MAM), wrote some years ago: "The islands of the Caribbean have always been open to the world, not closed. For over five centuries, this archipelago has hungrily absorbed outside influences while vigorously projecting itself outward."
The individuals I discuss in this essay created a fascinating web of friendships and collaborations that crossed national boundaries and moved in and out of the Caribbean, from Paris to Marseilles, across the Atlantic, throughout the Caribbean, to New York and back to the Caribbean, and then on to Paris. I mention events that have been written about, and hope to place these events in a slightly different frame- work, creating a more complete picture of Wifredo Lam's world during this period. I also aim to demystify much of Lam's involvement in this "new world," not in order to criticize his enormous visual accomplishments, but to place them in a fuller context.