Visual Art

Gary Nader Art Centre’s Journey Through Works Of Wifredo Lam Is A Treasure

Written By Karen-Janine Cohen
July 10, 2024 at 4:33 PM

“Hermès Trismégiste,” Wifredo Lam’s 1945 painting combines European, Afro-Cuban and Asian traditions and is one of 18 works on display through October at the Gary Nader Art Centre in Miami. (Photo courtesy of Maria Carolina Alonso)

When viewing the 18 exquisite works at the Gary Nader Art Centre’s Wifredo Lam show, certain elements demand attention – stylized birds; orbs, both horned and feathered; abstracted horses and a form all his own that appears in various iterations across his works. It’s an avian and bat-like creature with dreamscape qualities, deeply connected to Lam’s life and experience.

The show, “Wifredo Lam Masterpieces Exhibition: A Journey Through His Oeuvre,” through Thursday, Oct. 31 in Wynwood is a sampling of the Cuban-born artist’s works across his professional lifetime, from formative years in Madrid and later Paris to his deep immersion into the Afro-Cuban and Caribbean cultures of his youth, which infuses his work.

Squarely in the modernist tradition, Lam’s work is perfused with elements of cubism, symbolism and surrealism. Still, his visual language creates a unique sensibility that reaches out to the 21st century.

“La Fugue,” with its yellow, orange and brown tones reveal Lam’s iconic bird forms. (Photo courtesy of Maria Carolina Alonso)

“This is where he becomes a genius,” says Nader. “Because he paints all his background and his beliefs. Those who study him see that.” Such connections were not always obvious to all, says Nader. For example, some criticized his “sugar cane” stalks for bearing flowers. “He’s painting the bamboo of his Chinese heritage – even the most important critics didn’t know that, because they didn’t pay attention.” And one of Lam’s main messages was missed: the connections of all things.

This is the fifth Lam exhibit by Nader, who has been collecting the artist’s works for decades, particularly in Paris where Nader began specializing in Latin American masters – including Fernando Botero. “I started buying everything that I found and bringing it to Miami,” says Nader.

Nader first encountered Lam’s work at The Museum of Modern Art in New York when he was 14, where he was mesmerized by “The Jungle,” one of Lam’s most iconic works.

Gary Nader recalls when he first encountered the work of Wifredo Lam; he was 14 years old and was at The Museum of Modern Art in New York. (Photo courtesy of Natalia Aguilera)

Later, he went looking for more information about the artist. At that time, the pickings were slim.

Lam was born in Sagua la Grande, Cuba in 1902, the eighth son of his 84-year-old Chinese immigrant father, Enrique Lam Yam. He lived into his 100s always supporting his son’s artistic ambitions. His mother, Ana Serafina was of African and Spanish heritage. His godmother, Mantonica Wilson, a Santería healer, was an important influence. Lam attended art school in Cuba, then moved to Spain.

In 1936 he fought on the Republican side in the Spanish Civil War, relocated to Paris and moved in artist circles that included Pablo Picasso and other modernist and experimental artists. It was here where his mature style emerged.

Wifredo Lam’s untitled seated woman shows the influence of Picasso and Paris modernists. (Photo courtesy of Maria Carolina Alonso)

An untitled portrait of a seated woman at the Nader show typifies some of the works from those years. When the Nazis invaded in 1940, Lam along with other artists and intellectuals fled France.

Lam returned to Cuba. It was here where the artist deeply incorporated the Afro-Cuban and Caribbean symbolism and mythology that became defining elements of his works. Most emblematic of this at the Nader show is “Hermès Trismégiste,” where the realms of nature, animals and people combine in a mystical mix that references European, Asian and Santería myths and traditions.

“He was the first artist to say plants, animals and humans are the same thing,” says Nader. “He painted in a style that never existed before. If you know a little bit about art you have to appreciate what he was doing in the ’40s,” noting that it should be appreciated that Lam was a successful Black and Chinese artist who was friends with and admired by Picasso, Henri Matisse, and Alexander Calder.

In “La Fugue,” from 1949, visitors can appreciate Lam’s signature eyed-orb­ form, including stylized bird forms and the artist’s iconographic flowing and flying creature. According to Nader and other sources, the creature arose from a childhood incident, where a bat flew into Lam’s bedroom.

“It’s him, he paints himself as a bird,” says Nader. “It’s like the Yin and Yang but in his own language.”

“Les Oiseaux Voilés,” from 1945, explores the bird-bat form in different iterations. Photo courtesy of Maria Carolina Alonso

Nader may be not only the most knowledgeable gallerist and scholar of Lam’s work, but perhaps the most simpatico. Nader’s background, like Lam’s, straddles several cultures. Of Lebanese origins and raised in the Dominican Republic, Nader learned about art at his father’s Santo Domingo gallery. He sold his first piece at age 11, and never looked back. At age 22, he moved to Miami – though both he and his father agreed, the city was far from an art mecca. Nader had a vision of what Miami would – and has – become. “I wanted to grow with the city,” he says.

Nader found some of Lam’s painting still available in France.  At the same time, he was purchasing the works of other Latin American artists, most notably Botero. “I start buying everything I found and bringing it to Miami,” he says. At first, even those with Cuban ties were unfamiliar with Lam, and balked at paying more than $100,000 for a painting,  he recalls. “They almost threw me out of their offices.” Now, Lam’s works can command multiple millions.

More pointedly, explains Nader, Lam’s work deserves a wider appreciation, not just by modernist cognoscenti, but by contemporary artists whose work often explores blended identities, immigration and overlapping cultural heritages.

“What is most valuable today is exactly what is happening – the globalization, the mix of cultures,” issues Lam was addressing 40 or more years ago, says Nader.

WHAT:  “Wifredo Lam Masterpieces Exhibition: A Journey Through His Oeuvre”

WHERE: Gary Nader Art Centre, 62 NE 27th St., Miami

WHEN: 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., Tuesday through Saturday, through Oct. 31.

COST:  Free

INFORMATION: (305) 576-0256 and garynader.com

ArtburstMiami.com is a nonprofit media source for the arts featuring fresh and original stories by writers dedicated to theater, dance, visual arts, film, music, and more. Don’t miss a story at www.artburstmiami.com.

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