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.