The Jungle is considered Lam's masterpiece, exemplifying his mature style, blending human, animal, and plant forms to create hybrid creatures. These figures, with their elongated limbs, large feet, rounded buttocks, and heads resembling African masks are densely packed into the image. The tropical feel of the painting is enhanced by the use of vibrant greens and blues.
In this work, Lam juxtaposes the spiritual symbolism of Santería with the visual languages of Surrealism and Cubism, in order to highlight the tension between consumer-driven Modernism and the vibrant energy and tradition of African culture, from which Modernism has appropriated. Art historian Doris Maria-Reina Bravo notes that the inclusion in this "jungle" scene of sugarcane (a crop normally grown in fields on plantations, a booming business in Cuba in the 1940s) highlights the absurd disconnect between the cheapened version of Afro-Cuban culture presented to tourists, and the economic reality of the island at the time.
Indeed, for Lam, the idea of the "jungle" is not so much a reference to the island's tropical vegetation, as it is to a psychological space, to the troubled economic, political, and cultural climate of the island. Lam explained, "In The Jungle the revenge of a small Caribbean country, Cuba, against the colonizers is plotted. I used the scissors as a symbol of a necessary cut against foreign imposition in Cuba, against all colonization." Lam's "jungle" is not made of lush vegetation, then, but rather by the crops that had been fertilized by the sweat and blood of generations of slave labourers forcibly removed from their own land.
Lam's contemporaries recognized The Jungle as a painting of great importance. French author Pierre Mabille described it as a work "in which life bursts forth, unfettered, dangerous, poised for all possible combinations." Yet Lam also distanced himself from his European contemporaries through this work. According to literary scholar Paula Sato, Lam was critical of the way that Europeans turned "African and Oceanic works of art into pieces of exotica and sterile museum curiosities and for thereby trafficking in non-Western peoples' dreams, [...] dreams that those people had already lost because they had been stolen from them through colonization." Such a process of displacement was reenacted at the level of form with European artists' appropriation of African art, stripping it away from its original context. Sato notes that while Lam would have appreciated a groundbreaking work such as Picasso's Les Demoiselles d'Avignon (1907) (the composition of which inspired The Jungle), in his work Lam sought to place forms such as African masks "back where they belonged, which for him was in the AfroCuban religious ceremony." The title and subject matter of the work then may be understood as a nod to the geography of his native culture even as it also ironically owns the stereotype of the wild, "unfettered, dangerous" primitive in the European cultural imagination.
Gouache on paper mounted on canvas - The Museum of Modern Art, New York