Photograph of Wifredo Lam in his studio in Havana in 1950

Mark Shaw Wifredo Lam, Havana 1950 © Mark Shaw

‘My painting is an act of decolonisation,’ the Cuban artist Wifredo Lam stated in 1980, ‘not in a physical sense, but in a mental one’. Lam belonged to an extraordinary generation of artists who examined the place of the individual within twentieth-century society, marked by political conflict and the legacy of colonialism. His work was revolutionary in overturning cultural hierarchies through its emphasis on Afro-Caribbean culture. He developed a unique style that represents a highly distinctive point of convergence between modernist movements on both sides of the Atlantic.

The EY Exhibition: Wifredo Lam presents a chronological survey of the artist’s rich and complex career. Born in Cuba in 1902, he studied in Havana and Madrid. He enlisted with the Republican forces in the Spanish Civil War, and was in Paris at the outbreak of the Second World War. Returning to Cuba in 1941 as part of the exodus of refugees fleeing the German occupation, Lam was confronted with the poverty and corruption of his homeland, but also began to explore its African heritage. Over the following decade he developed the characteristic imagery of his paintings, drawing upon the rituals and symbolism of the Afro-Cuban Santería religion. Returning to Europe in 1952, he lived variously in France, Switzerland and Italy, before his death in Paris in 1982.

Looking back on his career between modernisms on both sides of the Atlantic, Lam identified the critical force of his cross-cultural work: ‘I could act as a Trojan horse that would spew forth hallucinating figures with the power to surprise, to disturb the dreams of the exploiters.’ He concluded: ‘A true picture has the power to set the imagination to work, even if it takes time.’

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