Paula Sato


This article examines Afro-Cuban painter Wifredo Lam and his iconic construction of Afro-Cuban identity. From the vantage point of a literary scholar rather than art historian, and in keeping with Lam’s description of his paintings as “poetry,” I read his artwork as terse lines of verse, rich in metaphors. Although Lam is regarded as the painter of Negritude, commonly understood as a male-centered movement, he distinguishes himself from his contemporaries by incorporating in his brand of Negritude two female figures as metaphors of the power to decolonize the mind. One of those figures is his Afro-Cuban godmother, Mantonica Wilson. Healer, diviner, and priestess of Shango, she is memorialized by a description of her attributed to Lam and by the poem titled “Mantonica Wilson” that appear in Aimé Césaire’s poetry collection moi, laminaire . . . . She is also memorialized in Lam’s 1941 and later paintings, whose metaphoric references to an Afro-Cuban spirituality attest to her enduring influence on the visionary world that the artist created. Her presence is most notably sensed in the figure of the femme cheval or horse-headed woman that appears repeatedly in Lam’s paintings. Valerie Fletcher notes that “in Santeria symbology a horse signifies the possession or empowerment of a devotee by an orisha; when a practitioner becomes possessed, that person is described as being ‘ridden’ by that spirit” (my emphasis). The expression of an anti-colonial spiritual force, largely associated with his godmother and the femme cheval, is one of the defining features of Lam’s Negritude.

Author Biography

Paula Sato is an Assistant Professor of French at Kent State University at Stark. Her research, which explores the broad concept of the monster and the monstrous from a multi-faceted inter-disciplinary perspective, investigates the persistent imagery of monstrosity in Caribbean culture. She also focuses on the topics of transvestism and cross-dressing in the Caribbean. Her publications dealing with these themes include “The Inclusionary Poetics of Severo Sarduy’s Textual Transvestism” in The Cross-Dressed Caribbean (2014), “Heroes, Monsters, Freedom and Bondage: Inclusion, Exclusion and Autonomy in Une tempête, Jane Eyre and Wide Sargasso Sea” in the Special Issue Discourses on Trans/National Identity of Canadian Review of Comparative Literature (2011), “Seeing through the Evil Eye: Meiling Jin’s Caribbean Counter-Gothic in Gifts from my Grandmother” in Asian Gothic (2008), and “L’Orient et l’orientalisme dans Écrit en dansant de Severo Sarduy” in L’Orient dans le roman de la Caraïbe (2006).