No artist better exemplifies the rising value of the Latin American art market than Cuban master Wifredo Lam.
Last June, in Sotheby’s marquee virtual auction, his kaleidoscopic painting Omi Obini (1943) sold for $9.6 million, nearly doubling his previous auction record.
It was the second-highest price ever paid at auction for a Latin American painting, just behind the $9.7 million paid for Diego Rivera’s Los Rivales (1931) in 2018.
Lam’s stock has been on the rise for more than a decade. In 2012, his painting Ídolo (Oya/Divinité de l’air et de la mort) (1944) sold for $4.5 million, more than doubling both Sotheby’s low estimate for the canvas and the previous record price paid for his work.
Five years later, another important canvas, A Trois Centimetres de la Terre (1962), fetched €4.4 million ($5.2 million).
Last week, during the online edition of Paris’s FIAC fair, Galerie Gmurzynska was offering a 1939 painting by Lam in a more Cubist style, Figure, in a range between €500,000 and €1 million ($604,000–$1.2 million).
The recognition from the top tier of the art market is long overdue. Lam was a hard-to-classify innovator who epitomized the complicated culture of Cuba and its deeply buried African heritage.
His unique strand of Surrealism, which peaked in the mid-1940s, explored the prickly topics of spirituality, racial conflict, and social justice in a young Caribbean republic still dominated by the United States.Lam was born to a Chinese father and an Afro-Cuban mother in the Cuban city of Sagua La Grande in 1902.
Three years after finishing his studies at Havana’s San Alejandro Academy, Lam left Cuba for Europe.
He spent a fertile 17 years in Spain and France, and lived for a time in Paris, where he rubbed shoulders with Picasso and other avant-garde artists, including the Surrealist André Breton.
On returning to Cuba in 1941, Lam took the influences he’d absorbed from European modernism and applied them to the landscapes and culture of his native land.
“Lam knew how to reconcile Western culture with Afro-Cuban traditions, giving birth in America to what we know as magic realism,” explained Roberto Cobas, the curator of Cuban art at the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes in Havana.
“He put Cuba’s ancestral heritage and the aesthetics of the Paris school on the same level.”
Lam was particularly drawn to Santería, the Afro-Cuban religion that melded Catholicism with the animist beliefs brought by enslaved people from West Africa.
Santería motifs appear in many of his significant paintings, including Omi Obini, which seems to reference the African river deity Oshún syncretized in Cuba with the Virgin of Charity.
Anna Di Stasi, Director of Latin American art at Sotheby’s, also noted the importance of Lam’s Afro-Cuban influences.
“During a seminal period of production in Havana, Lam executed paintings which melt human, animal, and vegetal attributes into creatures that evoke the spirit of Afro-Cuban culture through spectral forms and polymorphic figures,” she said.
“His enduring contribution to art history was the reclamation of an African identity within the mainstream.”