Wifredo Oscar de la Concepción Lam y Castilla was born December 8, 1902, in Sagua la Grande, Cuba. In 1916, his family moved to Havana, where he attended the Escuela de Bellas Artes. During the early 1920s, he exhibited at the Salón de la Asociación de Pintores y Escultores in Havana. In 1923, Lam moved to Madrid, where he studied at the studio of Fernando Alvarez de Sotomayor, the Director of the Museo del Prado (and a teacher of Salvador Dalí). In 1929, Lam married Eva Piriz, who died of tuberculosis two years later, as did their young son. This tragic event may have contributed to the dark and brooding appearance of much of Lam’s later work.
In the early 1930s, the effects of Surrealism were evident in Lam’s work, as was the influence of Henri Matisse and possibly Joaquín Torres-García. In 1936, a traveling exhibition of the work of Pablo Picasso shown in Barcelona, Bilbao, and Madrid proved inspirational to Lam both artistically and politically. He moved to Paris in 1938, where Picasso took him under his wing and encouraged his interest in African art and primitive masks. During that year, he also traveled to Mexico, where he stayed with Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera. Lam’s own multicultural heritage (as the son of a Chinese father and a mother of mixed African, Indian, and European descent) and his involvement with Santería, a religion rooted in African culture, would soon become integral to his work. By the late 1930s, Lam was associated with the Surrealists. He had his first solo show at the Galerie Pierre Loeb in Paris in 1939, and his work was exhibited with Picasso’s at the Perls Galleries, New York.
Between 1942 and 1950, the artist exhibited regularly at the Pierre Matisse Gallery in New York. In 1946, after a four-month stay in Haiti, Lam returned to France via New York. In 1948, he met Asger Jorn, who was a friend for many years. He traveled extensively until 1952, then settled for three years in Paris before resuming his travels again in 1955. In 1960, Lam established a studio in Albisola Mare, on the Italian coast. The winter of that year he married Swedish painter Lou Laurin, with whom he would have three sons. In 1964, he received the Guggenheim International Award, and in 1966–67 there were multiple retrospectives of Lam’s work at the Kunsthalle Basel; the Kestner-Gesellschaft, Hannover; the Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam; the Moderna Museet, Stockholm; and the Palais des Beaux-Arts, Brussels. Lam died September 11, 1982, in Paris.