(Cuba, b. 1902 – Paris, d. 1982)
Wifredo Lam was born in Cuba to an Afro-Cuban mother, Ana Serafina Castilla, and Yam Lam, a Cantonese immigrant employed at a sugar plantation. He was raised in the barrio chino of Sagua La Grande, in Las Villas province (today Santa Clara). Lam’s father maintained his Chinese religious beliefs, as well as other elements of Chinese culture, such as traditional calligraphy. Lam’s aunt, with whom he was very close, was a santera of the Afro-Cuban religion; nevertheless, his mother, who had Spanish as well as African roots, chose to raise him in the Roman Catholic and European cultural traditions. Lam’s artistic talents soon won him international acclaim; however, due to US restrictions on Chinese immigration, he was not able to visit New York City until 1946, even though his work had been shown there continually since the early 1940s.
Having worked with cubists and surrealists while living in Spain and France during the 1920s and 1930s, Lam employed a synthesis of surrealism and cubism in his art—with major influences from Picasso, Cézanne, and Matisse—while also integrating his Afro-Cuban heritage; particularly his interest in African “primitivism” and the sculptural traditions of New Guinea.
As a major Latin American artist who also played a vital role in the Parisian avant-garde, Lam has been widely studied and debated. For instance, some scholars contend that there is no formal evidence of his Chinese heritage in his work. Roberto Cobas, curator of Havana’s Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes, has argued that if there is a trace of Chinese culture in Lam’s oeuvre, it shows itself only in the discipline with which he devoted himself to his work on paper—drawing, etching, aquatint, lithographs—during the 1960s through the 1980s. Speaking generally, Cobas explains: “Beyond the simultaneity of his creations, whether they are close to figuration or abstraction, or the approach to his themes, new or recurrent, Lam imposes a singular plastic resource. This is due to the alignment of the elements coming from the cultures—Afro-Caribbean, European, Asiatic and the Pacific Islands.”