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Christoph Singler, Historian and Art Critic
Afro-Cuban Aesthetics and Abstraction

As noted by Pierre E. Bocquet, Caribbean artists are often reluctant to being considered as "Creole painters", mainly as a result of the dominant role played by so-called primitive Haitian painting (and its consequent commercial exploitation) (1). What attracted critics during many years, was a definition of the area in terms of rhythm and color, but abstraction is a style rarely addressed when Creole art is discussed. Especially color is at its best a trans-historical issue which replaces historically determined features by considering exclusively natural conditions. It would be as if we tried to explain French painting by the light characteristic to Isle of France. (2)

In recent times, iconographic analysis seems to be used in Caribbean context generally in order to furnish an interpretation of mythological items. Wifredo Lain is given today as an example for Creole painting, concerning his style - African sculpture seems to inspire the bold curvy lines and angular forms characteristic of his paintings - but first of all iconography. (3) It has been said that Lain gives expression to Afro-Cuban belief in the "unity of life", as his work combines human, animal, vegetal and sacred items in order to show "the interconnection of everything". I hold that this statement is not specific enough, because such a creed defines nearly any mythology, and on the other hand, it supposes that Lam portrays natural objects. Desiderio Navarro has claimed that his work has to be read like a text, to such an extent that the representation of a bird, instead of representing it, means the presence of spirit, according to Santeria topics. As he puts metaphors from linguistic to visual domain, Lam's figuration is based on a combinatory of sub-unities that function like words in a sentence, that is: as signs. (4)  On the other hand, the creation of such mythical beings is inspired by the juxtaposition of heterogeneous elements as practiced in the Cadavres exquis and before by Bosch or Breughel, as a clear reply  to the preoccupations of primitivism in Europe and USA during the 30's and 40's.(5)

I will try to replace mythological interpretation by discussing the possible, but merely formal influence of the ritual drawings of several Afro-Caribbean chapters. We know that Lam assisted to ceremonies during the 40's in Cuba and Haiti, but surprisingly his relationship to the plastic elements in these rituals has never been studied. Cuarto Famba, a study of an Abakua sanctuary painted in 1947, shows that some time Lam tried to take direct advantage of Abakua signs.


Santeria, Voodoo and religious communities of Congolese origin present in Cuba have all developed systems of ritual signs, but until today Abakua has been studied with more detail .(6) We still need a comprehensive survey of AfroAmerican ritual writings. I concentrate on Abakua Signs or Anaforuana, just because I know they have inspired Llinás visual language.

These Anaforuana appear on the floor of the ceremony center, on objects and on the body of the community members. That is to say that either the signs or the spectator are in movement when perceiving them. They indicate the placement of authorities during celebration of rites such a initiation, funerals, and so on. In some way by structuring spatially the rite they suggest also the narration of origins, and give, beyond their representational function, instructions for the different steps required to accomplish the ceremony.

Arrow, cross, circle (with two axes, one horizontal and the other one vertical), triangles and diamond-shapes with identical inscription, in the intersections of which appear little ovals. This is not an abstract formal language; it deals with stylized natural forms, as the triangle derives from the hill besides the river in what is nowadays Nigeria where the adepts suppose that the rite has been celebrated for the first time; the straight line signifies the distance covered by the congregation during ceremony as well as the river, and may also symbolize the palm tree; the 4 little ovals which cover nearly every gand6 indicate Sikan's and Tanse's eyes (Sikan and Tanse are at the origin of the abakua ritual). The signs are between pictogram, and ideogrammatic writing.(7)  Anaforuana vocabulary functions like latin alphabet: sometimes the value of an emblem seems to depend on the context in which it is placed, but actually an emblem is a compound of elements whose lecture only admits a few variants.

A baroko a combination of various Anaforuana, is not structured in horizontal-vertical orientation, nor is there an interplay between figure and background: important are the diagonals and a center-margin relationship that compels their lecture as signs rather than their appreciation as a representational image. A final remark concerns the durability of drawing: applied on the floor or the body, they have to be renewed or adapted to the specific objective of every ceremony.

Some of the formal items of Lam's work may thus be replaced in an AfroCaribbean artistic context. One aspect is the ambivalence between open and closed forms. Visible since the Fata Morgana drawings from 1940, this trait comes forth in the paintings of the fifties, when Lam's signs are getting more and more abstract. In contrast with his paintings of the decade before, where foreground and background had been melted by modeling (as in La Jungla), Lam flattens the representational space while retaining the different levels of surface. Shapes are now placed in front of a monochromatic background, while Lam returns to clearly outlined figures as sculptural forms. There is no more progression, that is, no passage from background to foreground. As mentioned by Navarro, the figures tend to be puzzles which combine different morphological features (heads put on buttocks, birds with horse-legs, fingers associated with toes, and so on), but this does not indicate the merging of human and animal forces: the horsehead means that an Orisha has taken possession of the human

Furthermore, when morphological features acquaint an emblematic status, there is a tendency to abstraction as ideogram, reinforced when these emblems come to be mere appendices of elongate lines as in Contrepoint .

In the 50's, his work displays more and more "activating nuclei" radiating to all the sides of the canvas. From 1945-47 on (yet present in the Fata Morgana drawings), Lam introduces the diagonal and the transverse axis; frequently appear personages in horizontal position but not represented as "lying", whilst other characters are put upside down, in contradiction to the vertical orientation that governs western pictorial representation.(8)  When I speak of “vocabulary”, the interpretation is not evident: in Umbral (1950) for instance, the diamond-shapes may have an apotropaic function (as appears in many a Cuban household) but also an initiatic one, defined as a threshold that may give access to the dark forms that appear behind them.

These remarks are not meant to explain by only Afrocuban influence some of the major items in Lam's painting. But his ethnographic interest, stimulated by his wife Helena Holzer, Lydia Cabrera as well as Surrealist writers like Pierre Mabille, reinforced and confirmed the pictorial tendencies he had been developing in his European years until the 1941 exodus.


Llinás was bom in Pinar del Rio in 1923. There he gets acquainted with basic craftsmanship of painting techniques in one of the many provincial academies. Still in Pinar, he studies avant-garde movements through the art reviews available in the public libraries. At that time, the majority of Cuban artists focus on national items, using certain cultural symbols which embody the "Cuban sentiment"; in summary, it is mythifying painting. In 1946 Lam first makes an impact on Llinás with his first one-person exhibition in Havana. Lam allows a new generation of painters to conceive of painting as independent of the realistic model which is prevalent then.

In 1953, Llinds, together with Hugo Consuegra and a few other angry young men, founds Los Once (The Eleven). (9) The group's purpose is to end the closemindedness of the Cuban art world that blocked the advances of the School of Paris in the 1920s. Los Once admire the abstraction of the postwar, a break with cubism and an art bound to eradicate national frontiers.(10) In the fiffies, Llinás begins his first trips to New York, Washington and Philadelphia, where he discovers, above all, Motherwell, Kline, de Kooning, and Gottlieb. Rather than of direct influence we should speak of elective affinity, because Llinds considers their language not just a formal one but uses it to express the violence that marked the Cuba of the 50s. Despite the fact that there is no Afro-Cuban content to detect here, the works he realizes until the 60s portend what “Black painting” means, too: they deal with the darkness and violence of History. From 1959 to 1963, in a series of "anti-paintings" almost monochromatic and empty of form, the bruslistroke is more and more aggressive, stressing color as a matter and eliminating illusionist depth. These paintings made of hints of spots on torn bags, frayed at the edges and stretched over frames not always perfectly rectangular,  seem to deny any meaning.' (11)  We may posit that Guido Llinds' "Black paintings" start from a background free of symbols.

In- 1963, Llinds sets foot in Paris. Confronted with the French intellectual medium of that time, the Cuban Diaspora lives in forced isolation. Llinás finds time for introspection and develops his friendship with Lain, who shows him the possibilities inherent to his marginal position. As ihe artist puts it, he had to live outside of Cuba to understand what being black meant. Nostalgia may be the vital reason for Afro-Cuban heritage to surface in the foreign environment. In that time Llinds begins to realize also wood engraving, in a manner that approaches him to African wood sculpture. But it is not before the 70s that the artist will call his works o Black paintings >), a group that has been recently completed by a series of "Elegies" and "Epitaphs".

Rather than of withdrawal back to Cuban identity, we should speak of breaking dependencies when using this new idiom, because it opposes Llinás to the French informalism of the fifties and sixties; on the other hand, it is likely to structure his abstract paintings, until then void of figures. His first works of the Paris period feature series of "signs" painted or incised, standing out against a monochromatic background. The emblems - crosses, double crosses and arrows - are placed in random form, somewhat dispersed. The relatively modest formats of the works lead the painter to insist on the edges, indicating the fragmented character of the canvas. The painter soon begins to emphasize this tendency because the signs insinuate a double movement inside and downward outside the pictorial space.

The rhythm starts to organize itself with certain vigor, including extra-rhythmic accents, as a counterpoint to the basic structure.

With the emergence of symbols, the painter is faced once again with the opposition between figure and ground, defying automatism he always had defended. The risk he assumes is that he simply "represents" signs, like others would paint a landscape. Thus the work will undergo a melting of all planes of the canvas, a game between the different layers of paint, that is between half-covered and half-emerging forms. In Peinture rouge (1966) the indented form on the right which reminds of an item typical for Lain is black, even though black is also the color of the background; in Signs, a good example for the quotation of Abakua symbols as starting point for Llinás' "black painting" (the triangle representing Ekue, the sacred Abakua drum, the eyes of Tanse and Sikan and the vertical (12)and horizontal lines, each one possessing a well defined meaning in ritual)  at least four colors define the shapes as well as they constitute the background: ambivalence that compels what Anton Ehrenzweig called scanning of the picture, a comprehensive vision that focuses at once all the elements  separated by analytic approach. (13)

Thus framing is getting more and more important as an essential structuring element of Llinds' painting in order to create constellations of signs which enter in rhythmic tension. Basically I distinguish two types of composition: circular or spiraling displays; and on the other hand, binary structures with parts sometimes rather independent, separated by a vertical or slightly diagonal axis, but in constant interplay due to a common or ambiguous background, or to similarity of symbols, like in Pintura Negra, a work from 1993. A third element is now introduced as a counterpoint which reorganizes as a whole the binary organization I have proposed. At a first glance it seems that this vertical structure rests only on the red pattern. Nonetheless, when we concentrate on the white forms, we note that three of the four white crosses are placed in diagonal position, pointing to the left, but there is also a circle and another cross pointing to the right, another one which seems inscribed into an unfinished circle; and I should not forget to give a precise description of the shapes in red, oscillating between form and background; black shapes seem to be more rudimentary, but there are incipient forms, too. (14)

This is what we could call, metaphorically, polyrhythmic painting, based on the overlapping of three structures defined by black, white and red color. A general characteristic of Llinás "black painting" is the use of three predominant colors with emblematic function, as in Abakud drawing, where yellow signifies "life", white "death"; or as in Santeria, where every Orisha is defined by a color. For instance, in Uri,& work blue may remind us of Chango.(15) I cannot help using once more a musical metaphor saying that by and large the scale of principal colors used by Llinás is so to speak pentatonic, ranging from black and white to blue, red and some earthen yellow tones (the green used in Signs is the exception that confirms the rule). Needless to say that black is used as color, not as a mere background, even if it is not necessarily present in "black painting", because the rhythmic or compositional aspect is primordial.

As rhythmic elements start to prevail, symbolism is evolving: The Abakua cross placed diagonally inside the circle has no longer the typical ovals and crosses. The arrow, still present, will be reduced to only the tip and be reduced to a triangle. Starting with a basic vocabulary, Llinás enriches his language by introducing polygonal forms derived from the circle and the triangle, as in Black Painting.

With time the painter acquires more freedom with regard to the ritual signs, now considered of as elementary pictorial forms. It is not about verifying if a certain element is found in the "dictionary" of symbols. But Anaforuana are not just pictograms, and their aesthetic use cannot supersede totally their ritual and cosmological significance. Due to their origin in initiation rites, the geometric forms convey a highly emotional dimension, reinforced by expressionist style.

Since the 80s, Llinás tries to avoid any evidence of the brushstroke so a "chromatic sculpture" can be accomplished. This consists primarily in removing several layers of paint by applying acid, in order to deepen or highlight the painting's surface. By minimizing the pictorial act, he poses himself as an interpreter of the intrinsic possibilities and limits of the canvas - like African sculptors who are said to be deeply concerned with the material they employ.(16) " On the other hand, this all-over proceeding used by abstract expressionism opens the door to a largely improvised painting - once more I am tempted to establish a parallel with Afro-Cuban, and why not, all Afro-American music.. (17)


As the painter erases the difference between outlined shape and background, any color can at the same time stand for background and symbol, thus the latter is either vanishing or in statu nascendi. This is the subject of Llinás’ work, whether in oil painting, in his wood engraving or in the collages LlinAs has realized since his Cuban period. They are based on newspapers and other clippings, sparely covered with a few forms. The act of painting is interrupted when some layers are partly tom away. Somehow we can say that Llinds, to speak with Walter Benjamin, is "building up on the ruins" of any form pretending to deliver a codified message. The fragility and ambivalence of any symbol, arising from or going back to the indistinct continuum, appears also in his wood engravings, where the variety of forms seems to be even greater than in oil painting, because the wood he uses is prone to favor the accidents cherished by the artist.(18) This may be the reason why so many poets and writers, like Cortazar, Lezama Lima and Michel Butor, were interested by his art: from their point of view, what is at its core is the destiny of sign, the emergence of word and the return to the silence of chaotic matter.

In the nineties, alphabetical sign has come to be part of Llinds' plastic vocabulary, as in For Robert Motherwell, a piece of the series of Elegies recently initiated. What should be focused in Llinás painting is the adventure of sign in general. Beyond Abakua, it deals with any type of writing, including Western alphabet and imagery, both used often as simple background, as "texture".

When citing the famous statement in which Lam qualifies his works as the "Trojan Horse" guarding the warriors that are to destroy the city (19) Gerardo Mosquera sustains that Lam introduces an American position into Western modernity. What is at stake when using or creating religious symbols in a secular context? A renewal of sacred dimensions of art? Like Lam, Llinás never has been initiated to any Afro-Cuban religion. It seems clear to me that his work breaks with ritual background. That is not to say that he just uses Afro-Cuban writing to create Western art. Llinás shows that introducing Afro-Caribbean vision into the heart of modernism does not need to refer to religious or cosmological items as has been shown until now by Haitian painters - without academic training - Rafael Mendive in Cuba or the installations of Santeria altars that have appeared in the last years. Rhythm and emblematic colors may characterize his art as of largely African inspiration, while the violence of Llinás  brushstroke and improvisation seem to reflect Creole experience in Western world. From that position he includes Western elements, in a new order that embraces all types of signs, all types of meaningful symbols. His is the art of the counterpoint, at the intersection between Western avant-garde radicalism and African formal language.

But I am not sure that it is up to me to define the artist's position. Last time I saw him, he commented: "Why should I be considered as an Afro-Cuban painter? What about my Catalan last names, Llinás Quintans? In fact I am Afro-Catalan... " In a somewhat ironic way, Llinás underlines the universal ingredients of Caribbean culture.


"The closer you look at something, the stranger it looks back to you. " (Karl Kraus)

When trying to describe Caribbean art in terms of "creolization", I fear we may paradoxically essentialize historic features said to distinguish Caribbean culture from any other area, as hybridization, fragmentation, openendedness or unpredictability. What seems to be unpredictable is art itself, as well as Caribbean cultural history. The questions are manifold: does the theoretical framework of cultural history help to classify art products, or does it replace academic rules by a. 
 new strait jacket? To come to definition of art in terms of cultural history, should we not proceed the other way around and start by interpretation? And when we find correspondences between art and cultural processes, maybe they are not more than a loose cloak hiding substantial differences in style and artistic intentions.

But even though he sounds excessively skeptical, Karl Kraus does not conclude to the nonexistence of the object he looks at. George Kubler writes in The shape of time that "style is like a rainbow. It is a phenomenon of perception depending on the coincidence of certain physical conditions. We only can see it briefly while standing between sun and rain, and it fades away when we go to the place where we think we saw it."

Christoph Singler  University of Besançon, France



1     “The Visual Arts and Creolite”, in Gerardo Mosquera (ed.): Beyond the Fantastic. London, Cambridge, MIT-Press 1996, p. 114.

2    In her Carribean Art (London, Thames and Hudson 1998) Veerle Poupeye avoids any definition nor does she propose a list of common features: "what is described here as Caribbean art is in effect a loose grouping of national schools and individual expressions which have developed in relative isolation from each other" (p. 10).

3    He did not only paint gods, spirits (guijes, Eleggua among others) and elements of Afro-Cuban creeds and ritual (scissors, altars, plants); Lain invented new forms to transcribe the beliefs of Santeria like the image of the horse-headed woman when the spirit takes possession of the dancer.

4    “Lam y Guillen: mundos comunicantes”, in: Sobre Wifredo Lam. La Habana, Ed. Letras Cubanas 1986, especially pp. 145-154. Gerardo Mosquera states that the “ message is the unity of life, a vision characteristic of the Afro-Cuban traditions, where everything is interconnected because everything - gods, energies, human beings, animals, plants, minerals - is full of mystical force and acts on everything else “. This may define cosmovision, but plastic representation of this idea is rare in African Art. Mosquera, as does Navarro, gives a primitivistic vision of Afro-Cuban beliefs; instead of "mystical" he should speak of "animistic" force. (Mosquera : “Modernism from Afro-America : Wifredo Lam “, in Mosquera : Beyond the Fantastic. Op.cit., p. 127. The period when Lam paints this interconnection is very short (42-46). Lam's is a painting where different traditions are not just synthesized, but combined in a deliberately contradictory manner.

5      Lowery Stokes Sims: “Myths and Primitivism: The Work of WL in the Context of the New York School and the School of Paris, 1942-1952”, in Wifredo Lam and his Contemporaries 1938-1952”, Studio Museum in Harlem 1992.

6       Robert Farris Thompson: The flash of the spirit; Jorge e Isabel Castellanos: Cultura A,frocubana 0, Miami Ed. Universal 1992, with insights in a sketch book hold by Lydia Cabrera  featuring Congolese signs, called fimbas or marks. I mention also the vévé used in Voodoo, limited to the east of the island, because Lain paints equally vaudoun deities.

7 Lydia Cabrera: Anaforuana. Ritual y simbolos de la iniciacion en la sociedad secreta abakua. Madrid, Ed. R. 1974

8          In 1944, during his illuministic phase, the first transversal compositions appeared; in '45, for the first time he introduces inverted figures in his drawings. When Lam returns to clearly outlined shapes in '47, the tendency is reinforced in his oil painting (see L’Ascension, 1947; The Dream (le Reve), 1947; The Blind Spirit (L’esprit aveugle, 1948).

9       The most important members are the sculptors Agustin Cardenas and Tomas Oliva; among the painters, Hugo Consuegra and Raul Martinez. Antonia Eiriz participates in several exhibitions.

10       Initially, they center on what the most favorable critics call the ideology of pure form. With time, however, the official position of the group begins to evolve toward an expressive abstractionism.

11       The monochromatic works may remind of Rothko, but they emphasize on matter instead of its transsubstantiation.

12       Ekud, the sacred Abakud drum, is supposed to manifest Tanse's voice when being rubbed.

13       The Hidden Order of Art, 1967

14    Also observe the relationship between Llinás' work and African textiles, above all what relates to rhythm (see Farris T'hompson: The Flash of the Spirit, African and Afro-American Art and Philosophy. New York, Random House 1983, c.4)

15          This corresponds to African origins, not to Afro-Cuban beliefs, where Chango's color is red

16        Jean Laude: Les arts de L’Afrique Noire (The Arts of Black Aftica). Paris, Ed. Librairie Generale Française 1966.

17       The painter sustains that the highpoint of Afro-Cuban culture is music, not plastic expression.

18       In his wood engravings realized with an Aftican axe found on a Parisian flee-market, the reminiscences of African

19       G. Mosquera :Beyond the Fantastic, op.cit.,  sculpture are perhaps more evident.

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