Wifredo Lam: Exploring a Famous Cuban Artist’s Cantonese Roots

In the many years he has been taking care of his estate, Eskil Lam has noticed something odd about his father’s legacy. Wifredo Lam was an acclaimed visual artist, a friend and contemporary of Pablo Picasso, whose work has been exhibited at some of the world’s most prestigious museums. Just about anyone who studies art history knows at least something about Lam. And yet, for such a renowned artist, he is strangely overlooked.

“He’s known but unknown,” says Eskil, speaking by video call from his office in Paris. “There is this paradox, a disconnect between his place in art history — because he does have his place — and how he is seen. There is this invisibility. People say they don’t know about him, despite the volume of exhibitions and works. We had an exhibition at the Pompidou, at the Tate, but people say to us, ‘Really? I didn’t see it.’ There is a strange effect. This is not something I can explain.”

Eskil is doing his best to counter that effect. That’s apparent in the exhibition he and his Hong Kong-based brother Stéphane have curated for the Asia Society Hong Kong Center. Wifredo Lam: Homecoming offers a rich survey of the artist’s life and work, from his early days in rural Cuba to a trans-Atlantic career that lasted from 1923 to his death in 1982. It’s the first time Lam’s paintings have been shown on Chinese soil — a previous exhibition in the early 1990s brought prints and drawings to mainland China — and the first that attempts to investigate one of the least appreciated aspects of Lam’s life: his Chinese heritage.

This is yet another thing about Lam that many people overlook. Eskil recalls how, just over a decade ago, he was exhibiting prints of his father’s work at Art HK, the predecessor of Art Basel Hong Kong. “A lot of Chinese visitors came in and reacted to the name,” he says. “They didn’t know Wifredo Lam was Chinese, and they wondered, who is this artist? There was a curiosity coming through the name.”

Lam was born in the Cuban town of Sagua La Grande in 1902. His full name is Wifredo Óscar de la Concepción Lam y Castilla, reflecting his mixed origin. His mother, Ana Serafina Castilla, was the child of a formerly enslaved Congolese mother and a father of African and Spanish origin. His father was Yam Lam, born somewhere in Guangdong, who made his way to Cuba with stops in California and Mexico. 

Sagua La Grande is located about 230 kilometres east of Havana and at the time was the capital of a sugar-producing region with an important Chinese community. Many of the earliest Chinese settlers had arrived as labourers, but later arrivals like Yam Lam tended to work as merchants. “He had a small shop and was a carpenter. He was a scribe for the Chinese community,” says Eskil. “He wasn’t just there for pure labour – he was more learned, he was well read,” says Eskil.

That’s an important point in the story of Wifredo Lam, the youngest of eight children, who likely never would have become an artist without such a broadminded father. Lam moved to Havana at the age of 14 to pursue his studies, and though he was initially meant to study law, he instead enrolled in art school. In 1923, he moved to Madrid to continue his studies under Fernando Álvarez de Sotomayor, who had instructed Salvador Dalí, while also plunging into the Spanish capital’s counterculture.

Lam’s work evolved as he grew as an artist, with influences from early Spanish modernism to Surrealism to the oeuvre of Henri Matisse. But just as influential as any artistic movement was the very immediate political situation of Lam’s era. His upbringing amongst Afro-descendants who earned difficult lives in rural Cuba made him sympathetic to the plight of Spain’s peasant and working classes, and when the country broke out into civil war in 1936, he joined the Republican side and used his talents to make propaganda supporting the liberal cause. 

The war was won by Francsico Franco’s right-wing Nationalists in 1939. Lam fled to Paris, home to Picasso and many other influential artists. But conflict soon followed him. When Paris was invaded by Nazi Germany in 1940, Lam left for Marseille, along with many French artists and intellectuals. Not long after, he boarded a ship for the French Caribbean colony of Martinique, only to be imprisoned after arriving. After 41 days in jail, he was released and travelled to Cuba. 

By that time, Lam had a new awareness of his upbringing. At one point in Paris, Picasso had shown Lam an African mask and told him he should be proud. Lam, perplexed, asked why. Growing up in Cuba, where there was little discussion of ancestry, he had never contemplated the fact that his antecedents had been enslaved people from Africa – a background shared by up to 62 percent of Cubans, according to scholars at the University of Miami, although only 9.3 percent are officially recorded by the Cuban government as having African ancestry. Lam delved into what he called the “negro spirit” at the heart of his country. 

Lam began spending time in Haiti, the former French colony that had fought a long revolution against slavery and colonial rule, finally winning independence in 1825. Unlike Cuba, people in Haiti were in close touch with their African roots, and Lam was eager to explore this creative legacy. That informed pieces like “La Jungla” (1943), a 2.5-metre-tall, 2.3-metre-wide gouache-on-paper work that depicts figures with African-style masks in a sugarcane field.
At the time, Lam was travelling between Cuba, New York and Paris, and he eventually chose to settle in the French capital in 1952, while still keeping ties with his homeland. He later set up a studio in Italy, where he continued to live and work until his death. 

With its paintings, prints and drawings, Homecoming guides visitors through all the intricacies of this fruitful life and varied career. “It’s an introductory panorama,” says Eskil. “It’s not everything in his body of work, because there were ceramics and to show them would have been very complicated, but we accompanied [the works on show] with some memorabilia and documents that are supposed to give context to the whole thing.”

But there’s an unanswered question running throughout the exhibition. Lam had become fascinated by the implications of his African ancestry, but what traces are there of his Chinese heritage? Eskil speculates that Lam’s fascination with printmaking and paper may have stemmed from his father’s interest in calligraphy. “But to find a correlation might be a little thin,” he says. Lam rarely spoke much about what it meant to be of Chinese origin. “He would say, ‘My father in Chinese, he does calligraphy.’ That’s what we got when he spoke about his background. It was seen as exotic. Can we see anything Chinese in his art? I will leave that to art historians and art critics.”

In a recent essay on recent Hong Kong shows, curator Robin Peckham notes that it’s hard to see any Chinese influence in Lam’s work, but the very act of exploring the notion is interesting. “Homecoming at Asia Society was always going to be a bit of a reach (his connections to Chinese tradition during his life being more speculation than anything else),” he writes. “But in this light it’s the reach itself that becomes interesting, the creation of a new set of ancestors, a new family tree that subverts the history we’re supposed to follow backwards.” 

In other words, it’s about the man as much as his work. Whether it informed his artistic practice or not, Lam’s Chinese heritage — and his peripatetic life split between America and Europe — speaks to the transnational flow of people and culture that has shaped the world. 

“What my father embodies is this multiculturalism, coming from different continents, travelling at a time when travelling wasn’t as easy as today, between Cuba, the Americas, Europe – at a time of war, even,” says Eskil. “When you look at my father’s work it combines so many different influences, things that were just within him and he didn’t have to look for to express.” More than four decades after his death, Eskil is certain that Lam feels as relevant as ever: “My father is very much an artist of the times.”

Photos in slider: Wifredo Lam in his studio, 1940, ©Marc Vaux, courtesy Wifredo Lam archives,

Wifredo Lam: Homecoming runs until June 2, 2024 at the Asia Society Hong Kong Center.

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