The 1943 painting The Jungle by Wifredo Lam is an Afro-Cuban piece that incorporates substantial elements of Santeria and Vodou religions. At the same time, there are many political and stylistic elements that make it just as important a piece as its religious ties. What it says about modern Afro-Cuban tourism and culture allows the viewer to harken back to the simple spirituality of Santeria, glorifying it as an alternative to a hurried, secular lifestyle.
The painting is very tropical at first glance, with many colors that are typical of that environment (harsh greens and blues, as well as son oranges and reds). It showcases a stylized mishmash of figures, what appears to be nothing more than a tangle of limbs and vertical lines. However, the closer you look at the painting, the more you begin to make out people, rail thin and looking away from the viewer at some unknown place.
One of the female figures on the far right appears to be some sort of woman/horse hybrid, which is indicative of Santeria religion and the orisha. All of these figures could be orisha of some kind, lesser spirits which could be summoned to perform all manner of tasks for the olorishas and the people of that Afro-Cuban community (Mitchell, 56). It appears as though these figures are all wearing somewhat traditional Afro-Cuban dress – one can make out headdresses, tribal masks, beads, necklaces, and the like, and their feet are bare. In fact, their dress is almost entirely naked, and the greenish-hue of the painting and their bodies could be indicative of tribal body paint.
As a Surrealist painting, the bodies presented are incredibly inhumanly shaped, as a means to place them outside the realm of reality. Their limbs are incredibly long and spindly, they have large, naked asses, and their skin is smooth and uniform. The limbs are juxtaposed with sugarcanes and leaves, tying these bodies with the natural world – something that was a big part of Santeria. These spirits are meant to bring a greater understanding of nature and the world to practitioners of Santeria, making it doubly poignant that these odd figures be so closely tied in with nature, especially aspects of nature so singular and unique to Cuba (sugarcane).
It is possible that this painting is indicative of how Santeria followers would see orisha – as these humanlike, but not quite human, spirits that connect them to nature. By following spirits such as the horse-like creature on the far right, they can get the world to assist them and help them feel safe and secure. These mythical forces are presented in a primitive way through their lack of dress and the absence of technology in the painting, making them very primordial and raw. Also, while sugarcane and tobacco plants are present, they are domesticated and not wild – this could possibly speak to the efforts of Santeria to control these spirits through ceremony and ritual. These orisha would be just as domesticated as the sugarcane, but no less valuable to them.
The painting is meant to evoke a spiritual state in the viewer, something that, according to Lam, has been lost on many modern Cubans. Instead of faces, we only see those tribal masks, as they showcase how important Santeria and Lam’s religious culture are to him, as opposed to the realism of the people. The mythical nature of these creatures – many of them half-man, half-beast – can symbolize the blending of cultures that went into the formation of Santeria.
The crescent moon on the half-horse orisha is very interesting, as it is meant to be a symbol of Yemaya, the universal mother in Santeria (Mitchell, p. 19). It is a clear instance of an orisha, right in the foreground of the painting, making it clear that this is the subject of the painting. There are also a pair of scissors, which provides some of the only Roman-Catholic components of Santeria in the painting; they belong to the St. Peter analogue Ogun, the warlike orisha (Mitchell, p. 19).
This painting is difficult to discern in terms of story or character, making it fit in very well with the mystery surrounding many aspects of Santeria. The presence of the occult in Afro-Cuban religions is a pervading factor of Santeria, and Lam uses this to maintain an air of mysticism surrounding the figures in the painting. As we look at it, we do not really know who or what they are, nor what they are doing there. All we know is that they are mysterious, intriguing, and powerful, giving the layman an inkling as to the power and wonder of Santeria.
The impact of Afro-Cubanism on Santeria is an important milestone for the religion, particularly in terms of its art and culture. Most of this new renaissance in art focused on a return to the primitive and simple, even magical. This new art sought to create a “systemic account of Afro-Cuban culture, especially their religious beliefs myths, and rites” (Mitchell, p. 138). In The Jungle, this is evident in the extreme tribalness of the piece – the rough, alien shapes of the figures are not akin to any sort of modern societal image known to modern Cubans; therefore, its only real application is a Santerian ritual, complete with mystical orisha. They blend in perfectly with nature, providing a sense of unity with the spirits and the real world, and showcase just how modernized the old culture has become compared to the new.
What’s more, the painting is an indictment of Afro-Cuban Santeria turning into a sideshow, a kitsch cultural footnote that is meant to be considered funny or amusing. On the other hand, these are deeply ingrained cultural beliefs that should not be made light of, and it is something that Lam attempts to convey in The Jungle. The claustrophobia found within the painting due to the tightly-packed nature of the sugarcane and the elongated figures helps to demonstrate the tight parameters that Santeria has been placed in since modernization of Afro-Cuban culture.
The Surrealist nature of the painting also provides a unique perspective, and a proper means by which to create fascinating imagery that is otherworldly and mystical. Lam could not have portrayed orisha in their proper context while still maintaining an air of realism; they had to be hyperreal and strange, or else their alien nature would be lost on the audience. Therefore, the figures are misshapen, spindly, and difficult to tell apart. What’s more, few if any of them are looking at the audience, making them further alienated from us, a powerful way to show how far away from the supernatural Afro-Cuban culture has become. The painting then becomes an expression of the desire to return to that.
In conclusion, Lam uses Santerian imagery and Surrealist stylization to display an honest, primal vision of Cuban culture and Afro-Cuban religion, gathering orisha around natural elements such as sugarcane and tobacco. This is meant to demonstrate a variety of things; the comparison of orisha to domesticated crops and cultural taming, the mysterious power of Santeria, and the desire for Afro-Cubans to get in touch with their own cultural heritage. All of these factors and more can be found in the painting, and it provides a unique and interesting image of the Surrealist Santerian world. African and Catholic imagery coalesce in a sea of naturalism, with these strange, unearthly figures blending together to demonstrate the power of myth and religion.
Mitchell, Mozella G.. Crucial issues in Caribbean religions. New York: Peter Lang, 2006.
Olmos, Margarite, and Lizabeth Gebert. Creole religions of the Caribbean: an introduction from Vodou and Santeria to Obeah and Espiritismo. New York: New York University Press, 2003.