Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Lydia Cabrera by Helena Benitez " La Quita San Jose"

photo Pierre Mabille, Lydia Cabrera
and Wilfredo Lam in Habana Circa 1945

Lydia Cabrera , a writer of Cuban Negro
stories , came to play an important role
in our life in Havana. She lived with her
long-time friend and companion Maria
Teresa " Titina" Rojas, en the old and
very elegant Spanish - Cuban mansion
" La Quinta San Jose" in suburban Maria-
nao . A strong friendship developed bet-
ween the for of us. We saw each other
three or four times a week and telepho-
ned daily Lydia was always keen for us
to participate in her regular discussions
with black and mulatto people living in
the black section Pogolotti behind the
high walls of La Quinta San Jose, and affi-
liated with the Santeria tradition. Sitting
on the large Greek-style porch overloo-
king the park with centuries - old trees,
they would " tirar los caracoles" , a me-
thod of divination by casting 16 small
seashells. According to how they fall,
past, present and future events are su-
pposedly revealed.

But their prophecies were often vague and
left plenty of room for the interpretation.
They told Wifredo he was going to be
famous and make lost of money ( which
was easily foreseeable event), but that
in exchange he had to give something he
kept in his house( the paintings) . Their
predictions for me were more specific.
They suggested I should have a mass said
for my mother and that my brother " had
trouble in the field" . I was startled , as I
believed my mother was still alive because
I had not received any communication from
my family since the war began. I was so
upset that shortly afterwards I consulted
a very famous Spanish fortune - teller . He
also told me that my mother was dead, and
predicted that later on I would divorce Wil-
fredo and work surrounded by many glass
objectos in a big country. As incredible as
all this seemed to me then , these prophe-
cies came true. In his first letter after the
war my father wrote of my mother`s death
and of my brother`s disappearance in the
battle of Stalingrad . I divorced Wilfredo in
1951 and worked surrounded by laboratory
glassware for more than 24 years, resear-
ching the autonomous nervous system and
neurotransmitters on cell cultures in the
Laboratory for Cell Physiology at Columbia
University , New York City.

We were also told that according to the
Afro - Cuban religion Wilfredo was son of
Chango , the god of war , lightening and
thunder and I was daughter of Ochun , the
goddess of pleasure, represente as the Virgin
Caridad del Cobre. This was all new and in-
teresting to me; for Wifredo it may have
stirred memories of his youth.

In what was left of 1941 and the early part
of 1942 Wifredo made a surprising return-
in the few pictures he painted- to his static
images of single female figures, more elabo-
rate than, but similar in style to, those of
Paris 1939 - 1940 . His cross- fertilization
with Surrealist poetry, symbols, automatism
and spontaneity had vanished like ephemera.
His illustrations of Andre`s poem Fata Morgana,
which had heralded a turning point in his use
of imaginative vocabulary, seemed all but for-
gotten . There was no magic. Wilfredo was in
a thoughtful mood.

Our penthouse aparment was lovely , but sim-
ply too small. In February of 1942 Lydia found
a good and suitable house for us near where
she lived in Marianao. Situated at Calle Panora-
ma 42, the large single -story building had
eight rooms. We assigned four to Wifredo`s
work . Two of those interconnected and could
accommodate large pictures. In these rooms
La Jungla ( The Jungle ) was born.

Hibiscus, bougainvillea and palm trees grew in
front of and beside the house. At the back , near
a wall of bamboo, avocado, custard apple, orange
and lemon trees, and several banana and papaya
plants had grown wild and undisturbed . To me
as a biologist , this plethora of nature`s bounty
was fascinating. I often called Wifredo from his
morning sketching to show him my discoveries.
We marvelled at the sensual appearance of the
banana flower, jutting from the stem like a dark
violet, oversized phallus and the papaya fruit
hanging down like large breasts . I took many
photographs , and for years to come these natu-
ral elements formed pictorial symbols in Wifre-
do`s work.

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