Wifredo Lam was born and raised in Sagua La Grande, a village in the sugar farming province of Villa Clara, Cuba. He was of mixed-race ancestry: his father, Yam Lam, was a Chinese immigrant and his mother, the former Ana Serafina Castilla, was born to a Congolese former slave mother and a Cuban mulatto father. In Sagua La Grande, Lam was surrounded by many people of African descent; his family, like many others, practiced Catholicism alongside their African traditions. Through his godmother, Matonica Wilson, a Santería priestess locally celebrated as a healer and sorceress, he was exposed to rites of the African orishas. His contact with African celebrations and spiritual practices proved to be his largest artistic influence.
In 1916, Lam moved to Havana to study law, a path that his family had thrust upon him. Simultaneously, he also began studying tropical plants at the Botanical Gardens. From 1918 to 1923, Lam studied painting at the Escuela de Bellas Artes. However, Lam disliked both academic teaching and painting. He left for Madrid in the autumn of 1923 to further his art studies.
Tótem y pajaro | 34 x 75cm | Pastels on Paper | 1962
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