‘My painting is an act of decolonisation, not in a physical sense, but a mental one’.
These are the words of one of the greatest Latin American painters of the twentieth century, the Cuban Wifredo (the ‘l’ of his Christian name disappeared due to a bureaucratic mistake, which the painter enjoyed) Lam.
His powerful paintings show how he assimilated modernist movements in art from both Latin America and Europe.
More than a hundred works spanning his whole artistic career are on display in the autumn of 2016 at London’s Tate Modern gallery.
Often, Lam’s life was as adventurous and full of incident as his art.
He was born in the small town of Sagua la Grande on the island of Cuba in 1902, the son of a Chinese immigrant father and a mother who had been a black slave on a sugar plantation.
His precocious talent as an artist was recognised early on, and his parents sent him to Havana to study from 1918 to 1923.
The works he produced in these years were precise and academic, showing his great ability for drawing and line.
His gifts won him a scholarship to Spain. This broadened his artistic horizons, but the early 1930s were marked with personal tragedy when both his young wife and their son Wilfredo died of tuberculosis.
He continued painting, influenced by both Picasso and Henri Matisse. Their example freed him from classicism, brightening his palette and introducing him to African art (as in Self-portrait 1926).
In 1936, Lam became caught up in the Spanish Civil War. He had no doubt where his allegiances lay, and worked for months in a Republican munitions factory in Madrid, until his health was badly affected.
By 1938, the situation in the Spanish capital had become very difficult. Lam left for Paris, with a personal introduction to Pablo Picasso.
Many of his paintings of this period, such as Self-portrait 1938, reflected the Spanish artist’s influence, in their increasing simplified forms and flattened space.
At the same time, he was influenced by the Surrealist painters, who encouraged him to paint not the reality outside, but the inner world of the imagination.
He later said of this period in his work: ‘When I arrived in Paris, after the fall of the Spanish Republic to the fascists, I began to paint what I felt most deeply, and this strange world started to flow out of me’.
In 1939, Lam found himself caught up in another war, where his past as a Republican supporter in Spain threatened to catch up with him.
These were difficult times: on the back of an identity photo in the exhibition Lam has scrawled: ‘otro día de amargura y de ascos (another day of anguish and disgust)’.
It was not until 1941 that he managed to get out of occupied France and return to Cuba.
His experiences in Europe led him to a new interest in the spiritual world of santería and other semi-hidden expressions of the spiritual life of the black population on the island.
By now Lam’s work was a fusion of all the different elements he encountered; Cuba’s exuberant natural world, but also the powerful inner spiritual and sensual worlds of its Afro-Caribbean inhabitants.
‘Africa has not only been dispossessed of many of its people, but also of its historical consciousness,’ wrote Lam. ‘I have tried to relocate Black cultural objects in terms of their own landscape and in relation to their own world’.
The works he produced after his return to his home country have been termed ‘syncretic vitalism’ by the critic Kobena Mercer, who sees his canvases as breaking down the boundaries between the human world and the natural and spirit world around us.
This porous world in which men and women can reach out to all the energy and signals of nature increasingly became Lam’s subject matter.
It led to the creation of forms that are found in the spirit world of Afro-Caribbean rituals, where shapes are constantly shifting, and colours take on a symbolic significance, as in The Sombre Malembo, God of the Crossroads.
When Batista seized power in Cuba in 1952, Lam was on the move again. He was refused residency in the United States because he was considered to be Chinese, and the quota for Chinese immigrants was full.
Instead, he headed back to Paris, and lived there and in Italy, where he produced many ceramic works, until his death in 1982.
Despite this prolonged period back in Europe, Lam was always greatly interested in his home country.
In 1967 he took the Paris Salon de Mai exhibition to Havana, where he and the other invited painters, writers and intellectuals created the giant Collective Cuba: the Mural (shown at the top of this article).
The Ey Exhibition: Wifredo Lam continues at the Tate Modern London until 8 January 2017.