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.
"Wifredo Lam, the Shango Priestess, and the Femme Cheval,"
Journal of International Women's Studies: Vol. 17:
3, Article 8.
Available at: https://vc.bridgew.edu/jiws/vol17/iss3/8