During the summer of 1940 Wifredo Lam (along with his artistic circle which included André Breton, Max Ernst, and André Masson among others) fled Paris due to the mounting aggression of the Nazi campaign that had already blanketed a significant portion of Europe and would soon consume France. Lam eventually returned to his native Cuba by the late summer of 1941, after spending 18 years abroad. His return would mark one of the most prodigious turning points in his evolution as an artist. As Lam described it, Cuba was “point zero” for him, a place where he would rediscover and reclaim himself. Moreover, it would serve as his break point from the stylistic tendencies of his European-period and lead him to “create the most significant works of his life” in a new artistic manner unseen and unknown before.  What is clearly visible in these transitional works from this point on is a ferocious creative energy brought on by Lam’s re-encounter with Cuba’s lush, natural landscape and a revival of his interest in Santería practices and with his own Afro-Cuban roots.
Only sixteen works are documented from this homecoming year—the majority of which are works on paper. While Lam continues his experiments with the human form that he began while in Europe (a style referential to the Cubist currents of the time while also taking on “Picasso-esque” and “Matisse like” elements), the works of 1941 reveal an emancipation from his “Paris-period” style. The key characteristics that are most notable in this group are two-fold: first, Lam’s intrigue “with either a seated or standing figure” as a compositional anchor; and second, his depiction of “angular heads inspired by Picasso and African art.”  The present work, Portrait de Madame Nena Azpiazu
, is a key example from this pivotal year. An isolated and singular subject, Lam stylizes the composition like a traditional portrait; it is both a seductive confrontation and a relaxed invitation. Set in an empty, hazy space he harmonizes delicate, pastel tones with heavily saturated hues that create an almost dream-like revelation of this mysteriously masked female. The heavy, black lines Lam tactfully places within the woman allude to “the volumetric dimensions of African art”.  Her mask, however, alludes to something greater and more powerful, and when considered within Lam’s full oeuvre places him within a wider global artistic context. As Alejo Carpentier, one of the most prominent intellectuals of the Cuban literati of the time writes, “Lam was animating a world of primitive myths with something that was ecumenically Antillean—myths that belonged not only to the soil of Cuba, but to the larger chain of islands”.  Lam successfully suggests an interloping of the human and the spiritual worlds with the mask, and recalls the phenomenal sacred ceremony of ashé
associated with Afro-Cuban religions: the process of spiritual possession and an exchange of life force by a practitant and deity.  The sitter thus appears to inhabit both the spiritual and the human world, held in a suspenseful moment of transformation.
Wifredo Lam’s choice to portray a known subject, Nena Azpiazu, in a mystical manner is perhaps the most intriguing and appropriate. The life of María Luisa (Nena) Azpiazu and her husband, Italian-American conductor Massimo Freccia who was the music director of the Havana Philharmonic Orchestra from 1939-1943, was full of great artistic encounters. Their circle included the cultural giants of the twentieth century including Stravinsky, Gershwin, Picasso, Lam and Hemingway, to name only a few.
 Lowry Stokes Sims, “Wifredo Lam: From Spain Back to Cuba,” Wifredo Lam and His Contemporaries 1938-1952 (exhibition catalogue), 1992, New York, p. 27
 Julia P. Herzberg, “Wifredo Lam: The Development of a Style and World View, The Havana Years, 1941-1952”, Wifredo Lam and His Contemporaries 1938-1952 (exhibition catalogue), 1992, New York, p. 32
 Ibid, p. 32
 Ibid, p. 48
 Ibid, 33