Wifredo Oscar de la Concepción Lam y Castilla was born on 8 December 1902 in Sagua la Grande, Cuba. In 1916 his family moved to Havana, where he attended the Escuela de Bellas Artes. In the early 1920s he exhibited at the Salón de la Asociación de Pintores y Escultores in Havana.
In the early 1930s, the effects of surrealism were evident in Lam's work, as well as the influence of Henri Matisse and possibly Joaquín Torres-García. In 1936, a traveling exhibition of Pablo Picasso's work shown in Barcelona, Bilbao and Madrid proved to be a source of inspiration for Lam both artistically and politically. He moved to Paris in 1938, where Picasso took him under his wing and encouraged his interest in African art and primitive masks. Lam's multicultural heritage (as the son of a Chinese father and mother of mixed African, Indian and European origins) and his involvement with Santería, a religion rooted in African culture, would soon become an integral part of his work. In the late 1930s, Lam was associated with the Surrealists.
His first year in Cuba marked a watershed in his artistic development; he was introduced to Carl Jung's theories and in late 1942 he began his mighty painting Jungle. Lam's exploration of mythical images paralleled that of his New York contemporaries, the Abstract Expressionists, although Lam used specific arguments. Lam created his style by blending Surrealism and Cubism with the spirit and shapes of the Caribbean.
In 1946, after a four-month stay in Haiti, Lam returned to France via New York. In 1960, Lam opened a studio in Albisola Mare on the Italian coast. In the winter of that year, she married the Swedish painter Lou Laurin, with whom she would have three children. In 1964 he received the Guggenheim International Award and in 1966-67 there were multiple retrospectives of Lam's work at the Kunsthalle in Basel; the Kestner-Gesellschaft, Hanover; the Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam; the Moderna Museet, Stockholm; and the Palais des Beaux-Arts, Brussels. Lam died on 11 September 1982 in Paris.