Wifredo Óscar de la Concepción Lam y Castilla (December 8, 1902 – September 11, 1982), better known as Wifredo Lam, was a Cuban artist who sought to portray and revive the enduring Afro-Cuban spirit and culture. Inspired by and in contact with some of the most renowned artists of the 20th century, Lam melded his influences and created a unique style, which was ultimately characterized by the prominence of hybrid figures. Though he was predominantly a painter, he also worked with sculpture, ceramics and printmaking in his later life.
He was of mixed-race ancestry: his father, Yam Lam, was a Chinese immigrant and his mother, was born to a Congolese former slave mother and a Cuban mulatto father. In 1916, Lam moved to Havana to study law, a path that his family had thrust upon him. From 1918 to 1923, Lam studied painting at the Escuela de Bellas Artes. He left for Madrid in the autumn of 1923 to further his art studies.
In 1923, Lam began studying in Madrid. At the Prado, Lam discovered and was awed by the work of Hieronymus Bosch and Pieter Brueghel I. Though Lam’s dislike for academic conservatism persisted, his time in Spain marked his technical development in which he began to merge a primitive aesthetic and the traditions of Western composition. During the 1930s Lam was exposed to a variety of influences. In his work, the influence of Surrealism was discernible, as well as that of Henri Matisse.
Therefore, at the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War, Lam sided with the Republicans where he used his talent to fashion Republican posters and propaganda. Drafted to defend Madrid, Lam was incapacitated during the fighting in late 1937 and was sent to Barcelona. There, he met Manolo Hugué. Manolo gave Lam the letter of introduction that sparked his friendship with Picasso.
In 1938, Lam moved to Paris. Picasso quickly became a big supporter of Lam, introducing him to many of the leading artists of the time, such as Fernand Léger, Henri Matisse, Georges Braque and Joan Miró. Picasso and Lam also exhibited their work together at the Perls Galleries in New York in the same year.
With the outbreak of World War II, Lam left for Marseille in 1940. There, he rejoined many intellectuals, including the Surrealists, with whom he had been associated since he met André Breton in 1939. In 1941, Breton, Lam and Claude Lévi-Strauss, accompanied by many others, left for Martinique only to be imprisoned.
In 1960, Lam established a studio in Albissola Marina on Italy. At the encouragement of Asger Jorn and after being intrigued by the local pottery making, Lam began to experiment with ceramics and had his first ceramic exhibition in 1975. Lam, like many of the most renowned artists of the 20th century, combined radical modern styles with the “primitive” arts of the Americas. While Diego Rivera and Joaquin Torres Garcia drew inspiration from Pre-Columbian art, Lam was influenced by the Afro-Cubans of the time. Lam dramatically synthesized the Surrealist and Cubist strategies while incorporating the iconography and spirit of Afro-Cuban religion. For that reason, his work does not singularly belong to an art movement.