Art Market

How Wifredo Lam’s Unique Strand of Surrealism Seduced Collectors

Brendan Sainsbury
Mar 5, 2021 10:44PM
Wifredo Lam
Untitled, 1972
Art Of The World Gallery

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).

Wifredo Lam
Untitled, 1944
Galleria Ferrari

Wifredo Lam, Omi Obini, 1943. Courtesy of Sotheby’s.


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.

Wifredo Lam
The Reunion, 1973
Latin American Masters

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.”

Wifredo Lam
Untitled, 1972

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.”

Lam’s trademark style garnered plenty of admirers, including Picasso, who, like many 20th-century modernists, was drawn to the perceived primitivism of African art. For Lam, primitivism meant something more profound. Africa was in his heritage. His grandmother, who was Congolese, had been enslaved, and his godmother had been a Santería priestess.

Lam’s career reached its zenith in the 1940s. Around this time, he started fraternizing with proponents of afrocubanismo, a movement that drew a loose collection of writers and artists including the novelist Alejo Carpentier and the anthropologist Fernando Ortiz. One of the goals of afrocubanismo was to give greater legitimacy to Black culture by using art to help integrate it more deeply into Cuban society. In the process, its advocates shared some of the ideas of négritude, an anti-colonial movement with ties to Surrealism that worked to cultivate a Pan-African Black consciousness.

Wifredo Lam
Comme une cathédrale bombardée, 1965
Gutan Art Gallery

Many of these ideas seeped into Lam’s magnum opus, La Jungla, painted in Cuba in 1943 and acquired two years later by New York’s Museum of Modern Art. A canvas of towering dimensions, it contrasts the sugar-cane fields of colonial Cuba with the mystical countenances of Santería. Infused with elements of Cubism and Surrealism, La Jungla examines the issues of exploitation, slavery, Black identity, and rebirth. It was the painting that made Lam world famous. Yet while his work gained increasing prestige from the 1940s onward, especially in Cuba, the artist commanded only modest prices from collectors during his lifetime. At the time of his death in 1982, Latin American painting still barely registered on the international art market.

Things began to change in the 1980s with the rehabilitation of Frida Kahlo, who, over the following two decades, went from being considered an obscure Mexican Surrealist to a cult feminist icon portrayed by Salma Hayek in a critically acclaimed movie. Kahlo briefly held the auction record for a Latin American painting when her Two Nudes in the Forest (1939) sold for $8 million at Christie’s in 2016. Both Lam and Rivera (her former husband) have since surpassed that result.

What has stimulated this newfound interest among collectors for Lam’s work? For Di Stasi at Sotheby’s, the artist’s rising value has been driven by an increased interest in Surrealism from the Americas coupled with several high-profile exhibitions, including a traveling Lam retrospective that debuted at the Centre Pompidou in Paris in 2015 before moving on to the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía in Madrid and Tate Modern in London.

Roberto Cobas traces the trend back further. “The rise in price for Lam has been going on for over 20 years,” he claimed, “ever since La Mañana Verde, his masterwork from 1943, was auctioned at Sotheby’s in 1998 for more than $1 million.”

Perhaps there’s another factor informing the latest rise in demand. In our current era of cultural wars and racial injustice, Lam’s rich paintings and the diverse experiences and histories they represent are as relevant as ever.

“Lam penetrated the core of civilization and created a unified vision of the universe through an intercultural dialogue,” said Cobas. “He started an inclusive artistic conversation, open to all cultures, in which the modern expression of myths continues to be valid.”

Wifredo Lam
Untitled, 1973
Latin Art Core

Lam has long been an icon in Cuba and a big influence on other Cuban artists. Di Stasi suggested his recent resurgence has, to some degree, prompted a wider interest in Cuban painting. “We’ve offered exemplary modern art from Cuba in recent sales that have surpassed expectations and reinvigorated the marketplace for some of these artists,” she noted.

A mark of the trend is Cuban Chilean artist Mario Carreño, whose bold, Cubist-influenced Cortadores de Caña (1943) sold in the same Sotheby’s auction as Omi Obini for a little over $2.6 million—well ahead of its high estimate of $2 million, and good for a new auction record for the artist. Carreño was a contemporary of Lam’s who also studied at Havana’s San Alejandro Academy and lived in Paris in the 1930s.

Wifredo Lam
Idoli, 1973
Galerie Von Vertes

Other Cuban painters could follow. According to Cobas, Lam has been a model for abstract Cuban artists since the 1960s, when paintings like El Tercer Mundo (1965–66) and Contrapunto (1951) were decisive influences. Contemporary Cuban artists, such as Florida-based José Bedia, trace a direct line to him.

What’s next for Cuba’s great modernist master? For Cobas, the Omi Obini sale wasn’t a surprise. He sees the possibility of higher prices in the future. “I think the time has arrived to include Lam among the universal masters, beyond the bidding of Latin American art,” he said.

Brendan Sainsbury