Afro-Surrealism: Embracing & Reconstructing the Absurdity of “Right Now”
Surrealism is described as a 20th-century unusual or unconventional art movement that serves the purpose of releasing creative expression of the unconscious mind. Bizzare images, dreamlike landscapes of untamed thought. Surrealism is interested in exploring the minds thoughts and concepts directly as they come. Surrealism through artistic mediums like paintings can appear as incohesive juxtapositions, but are done so deliberately, and organically. Art has always been a tool used to provoke audiences to understand social constructs, societal reforms, and so called “uncomfortable” realities the broader public can’t seem to digest. Which could be an understandable reason black surrealist creatives have flocked to the genre; to demonstrate their beliefs genuinely while still advising their audience on issues that matter through unorthodox means of articulation. What I am primarily focused on is the ways black artist have adapted surrealism, and made it their own. Afro-surrealism are the forms of artistic work inspired by the black cultural aesthetic with the purpose of liberating the people and expanding the understanding of how black individuals exist. Afro-surrealist look to inform the public on the invention of structure: racial, societal, and norms, all while still critiquing these structures that are imposed on them. African-American surrealist are interested in exposing the “right now”, another way of saying what is currently happening universally to effect the black livelihood. As described by Lacey Murphy and Kevin Mccoy in Afro-Surrealism: What Black is and Can Be. They state, “From “stop and frisk” policies to racially motivated 911 calls and other forms of racial profiling prevalent in society today, black Americans are continuously policed simply by race and appearance. This is why the mission of exposing the “right now” is crucial”. In my essay, I intend to look at the ways afro-surrealist are communicating to us through the use of surrealism. From Henry Dumas to Sun-Ra onto the likes of Toni Morrison I will look at the mediums black surrealist use to communicate their message and its effectiveness. I will analyze how black artist have embraced surrealism, and how they are using it to their advantage as creatives and racial equity zealots. By singularly focusing on afro-surrealism and black artist who practice this, I can track subject matter patterns across the spectrum of surrealism black artist have chosen to explore.
Afro-surrealism as a component of the black arts movement that takes our world and creates a different scenescape that is still relatively connected to this one; and black artist have chosen to use this genre to express their feelings of worry, liberty, and injustice giving them the room to be as weird and free as they’d like. The Black Speculative Arts Movement or BSAM is a term that refers to the entire movement of black abstract arts. It was BSAM that helped bring recognition to afro-surrealism and display it on the the forefront of black arts movement. Reynaldo Anderson author of Afrofuturism 2.0 attempts to explain how BSAM has become an “umbrella” term for much of what the black arts movement consist of.
“BSAM is a loose umbrella term which represents different positions or basis of inquiry: Afrofuturism 2.0 (and its several Africanist manifestations, e.g. Black Quantum Futurism, African Futurism, Afrofuturismo, and Afro- futurista), Astro Blackness, Afro-Surrealism, Afro-Pessimism, Ethno Gothic, Black Digital Humanities, Black (Afro-future female or African centered) Science Fiction, The Black Fantastic, Magical Realism, and The Esoteric. Although these positions may be incompatible in some instances, they overlap around the term speculative and design, and interact around the nexus of technology and ethics.”
While surrealism is only a small piece in a greater moment it’s important to recognize how all of these different genres naturally connect to one another due to their desire to interconnect with the unethical treatment of blackness in a larger space. Much like the rest of the genres under the umbrella, afro-surrealism and its contributors deal with the ludicrousness and the strangeness of the black experience through music, paintings, photography, sculpture, film, and even stories. While sometimes ridiculous, the stories these artist tell while absurd are still true at the root of their origins in blackness. Artist who create on different platforms each had their own unique way of sharing their surrealist imaginations. In Henry Dumas: Afro-Surreal Expressionist, author Amiri Baraka describes the ways some artist have personalized the genre and the techniques they used to revolutionize the black arts movement. The author explores the techniques artist have previously used to construct meaning that isn’t easily understood by the masses.
“The strangeness of Dumas’s world resembles Toni Morrison’s wild, emotional “places.” Both utilize high poetic description- language of exquisite metaphorical elegance, even as narrative precision. But language tells as well as decorates. Both signify as powerfully as they directly communicate. The symbols sing, are cymbals of deeper experience, not word games for academics.”(Baraka)
Black artist continue to build these distinctive worlds ruled by blackness and unfiltered black conscious thought. These platforms of art are unapologetically done so, with the inclusion of signifying, AAVE, and universal black rhetoric. Afro-surrealist look to inspire audiences through their ability to symbolically look at how blackness operates within white America through preposterousterity and emotion. Afro-surrealism also deals with the spirituality of autonomy, as it appears in Henry Dumas’ Ark of Bones. He explores this side of surrealism by writing about how it intersects with the natural black experience. Author Henry Dumas’ Ark of Bones weaves a tale of two young men and their journey to find the great ark that once held the black ancestors, and their destiny to transcend this world for a better one. Dumas is a successful surrealist writer who has the ability to make the reader question the nature of their reality in white America. While the reading itself is rather mysterious as it’s content is filled with complex ideas, Dumas skillfully presents his take on afro-surrealism with a not so subtle approach to the importance of Africanness. Adetokunbo Pearse journal author of The Mystique Factor in Dumas Ark of Bones discusses the spirituality factor that plays a role in Dumas intriguing story.
“In aspects of theme, atmosphere, language, and characterization, the story Ark of Bones” brings to life the dream-like nature of the history of Africans on the planet Earth. It is a story plagued by attempts to dodge deadly blows aimed at the cultural lifeline of the community. In that sphere all of the human experience irrespective of race is, even like death, a concomitant mystique factor. Headeye, the mojo man, prophesied his own return. We are left to presume that at his second coming he will anchor his ark somewhere in the multicultural city center and help twenty-first-century man get on board.” (325–327)
Pearse does a fine job of summing up the importance of spirituality in Dumas’ work and what it does to further support the idea that afro-surrealism is centered around the notion of moving towards a more multicultural existence for all people. The story also relies heavily on cultural identity with the pleasant use of African-American vernacular and signifyin; and the opinion of holiness aligned with blackness after the protagonist of the story learned about God’s people who sailed in the arks. Leaving their bones and haunting memory behind in this world. Only to return with Headeye to a different reality of welcome Africanism. Dumas isn’t alone in his journey in seeking out the spiritual connection to blackness in surrealist art; other artist who’ve mastered the platform of music allow audiences to experiences their blackness in an out-of worldly way, literally.
Artist like Sun-Ra engages with audiences in the celestial alternate reality where race is only a construct that limits those who have an inferiority complex. Sun-Ra a jazz musician known for his vibrant playings alongside his arkestra (possible callback to Dumas’ Ark) was himself an embodiment of afro-surrealism and futurism, proving the overlap of surrealism and futurism just as Anderson states. While most thought he was just another quack musical genius due to the claims he made, “”Since I don’t consider myself as one of the humans, I’m a spiritual being myself,”(Sun-Ra to Joel Rose, NPR) People were quick to right him off; but what if he is on to something. What if Sun-Ra like Dumas understands more about the existence of blackness in America, or even on Earth. Author Yatasha Womack dives deep into the worlds of both afro-futurism and afro-surrealism and how they relate to one another and the impact they leave on society in her book titles AFROFUTURISM where she gives an explanation for both genres and describes their cultural significance and importance. Yatasha Womack quotes Mark Derry in her book AFROFUTURISM stating, “African Americans are, in a very real sense, the descendants of alien abductees.” An example of surrealism and life coming together to create a “human” who opposes the constructs that others imposed on him. Sun-Ra embraces this afro-futuristic style whole heartedly, rejecting the adversities that come with everyday black livelihood and reclaiming himself an alien. Sun-Ra found spirituality outside of the eurocentric norms of religion and Americanness, outside of this world even, I’d like to believe that he found peak blackness outside of Earth on his supposed home planet of Saturn. Why else would he have a song called “Space is The Place”. In trying to grasp the how the spirituality is reflected on the visual side of Sun-Ra’s performances, Peter Watrus wrote in the New York Times,
“He and his band, usually called the Arkestra, dressed in a funny version of 1950’s intergalactica, with glittering hats (which were in fact spandex tank tops), robes and amulets that signified everything from Egyptology to outer-space surrealism. Sun Ra made his performances a mixture of camp, pandemonium, seriousness and spiritual catharsis”(Watrus)
Visual media has also impacted the afro-surrealist arts movement, maybe even more so than any other medium because of its widespread accessibility and intrigue to audience, looking to you Get Out and Sorry To Bother You. Author Larne Bakare delves deeply into the genre of afro-surrealism through the use of music, visual media, film, television shows, and artwork to understand the ways in which artist and creators explore the craziness of black life and society specifically through the black POV. The author looks at the past of the afro-surrealist movement to it’s influencers and the impact they left on the movement. He observes the “weirdness” of the movement as a central theme to its mass appeal stating, “it’s no wonder our pop cultural landscape is turning Afro-surreal at a time when society is wrestling with racial violence, bias and inequality.” Writes Lanre Bakare whose essay on the new afro-surrealist covers writers like Jordan Peele and creative directors like Terrence Nance or Boots Riley. Jordan Peele takes you to the sunken place where black folks are the marginalized and forced to relive the trauma of being sought out for their physical prowess. Boots Riley shows us the acute horrors of capitalism and ask the question: what are you willing to give up to have it all? Terrence Nance uses his sketch show to introduce you to modern blackness and how white society interferes with it. He even introduces you to death personified whose sole job is to take the lives of black children; but is so distraught over her job, she [death] tries to follow after them. Proving even death is empathetic to the disgusting acts committed against black bodies. Writers and directors, specifically black writer and directors understand what is going on in America, because it is mirrored in their work. For some of them, they’ve chose to express their fears through surrealism for the abstraction of it all. These films are complicated and complex, but they are at their core what blackness is all about.
There’s no arguing that afro-surrealism isn’t a unique, exuberant, and artistic movement that engages audiences in critical rhetorical analysis. But I fear some fans of Jordan Peele’s work, or jazz fans who are intrigued by Sun-Ra are still left questioning it, and asking what it means, or what’s the message behind the art. How do artist take complicated themes that some might not comprehend, and use them to convey meaning? D. Scott Miller writes about what the afro-surrealist movement is and how their artwork has contributed to the conversation of surrealism. The manifesto shares Millers ideas how it’s lasting legacy evokes emotion from audiences. He states,
“Afro-Surrealists distort reality for emotional impact. 50 Cent and his cold monotone and Walter Benjamin and his chilly shock tactics can kiss our ass. Enough! We want to feel something! We want to weep on record.” Artist convey meaning through raw emotion. Through emotion that is evoked through what is happening during the “Right Now”. “RIGHT NOW, Afro-Surreal is the best description to the reactions, the genuflections, the twists, and the unexpected turns this “browning” of White-Straight-Male-Western-Civilization has produced.”
Miller writes. I’ve chose to see it as the act of ‘creating’ is how artist have chosen to convey meaning. Terrence Nance see’s how the lives of black youth are threatened by oppressive forces and institutions; so he writes a show that nonchalantly talks about their death. I could assume the meaning behind this is stop killing us! The meaning isn’t in the art, it’s the reason for the art, the reason behind the art, the inspiration for the art. If artist didn’t care about black lives, or racial inequality, or the consequences of capitalism, we wouldn’t have the content we have now. Miller quotes another on afro-surrealism, and how it’s work has left legacies. “Jean-Paul Sartre said that the art of Senghor and the African Surrealist (or Negritude) movement “is revolutionary because it is surrealist, but itself is surrealist because it is black.”” Blackness is tethered to the meaning in afro-surrealism because I believe that the artist understand the importance of unfiltered thought and the importance of sharing the truth. Artist convey meaning through afro-surrealism just as literature conveys meaning in the text, you have to care about the topic and the subject matter before you even pick up the book, and once you start to read, only then can you understand the artist intent. One can only convey meaning if there is a subject for the meaning to make an impression on. The message isn’t the meaning, but the act of creating out of the need to liberate.
”The focus of Afro-Surrealism is the present but it does not deny succession of time and the importance of the past as an agent in shaping the ‘now’” Writes Rali Chorbadzhiyska on their blog Starting Point 102. Afro-surrealism is the art movement that focuses on what is happening right now, but their influence on how to depict the “right now” is deep rooted in the history of blackness in America. In order to understand the experiences of African-Americans there has to be a blunt telling of their livelihoods. Afro-surrealism doesn’t mince words or sugar coat, it’s unabashedly honest even if the delivery of the message isn’t always clear. I’m in favor of afro-surrealism because of the emotions that the art can evoke. One of the main goals afro-surrealism is to evoke emotion through the use of dionysian more so than the use of apollonian. Miller talks about the Négritude movement and how it is a central correspondent in understanding afro-surrealism. To further explain what Miller is talking about and the role of these two forms of rhetoric, I use The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy’s section on Négritude definition to explain the theory. They state,
“Césaire’s views follow consistently from his surrealist poetics and eventually converge with his friend Senghor’s. Césaire’s notion of the primordial role that should be played by the Dionysian in art versus the Apollonian. These are categories that Césaire and Senghor adopted from Nietzsche’s philosophy (Nietzsche’s Birth of Tragedy) to express the opposition between the primal, obscure force of life considered as an organic whole (the Dionysian) on the one hand, and on the other hand the plastic beauty or the form which brings into light the individuality of the object (the Apollonian): the Dionysian speaks to our emotion while the Apollonian speaks to our intellectuality.”
By incorporating dionysian, or emotion in the afro-surrealism movement artist can convey honest thought, and meaning to their work. Which translates across all platforms of art. And by including apollonian, even just the slightest amount allows views to see the world through blackness for how it truly looks. Afro-surrealism isn’t focused on black pain like torture porn; but focused on the idea of black development throughout time. An artistic timeline that shares the history and emboldens the people to further recognize what is happening in their own lives right now. I see afro-surrealism as the real ‘wokeness’ and the ability to see the world as it is and present it forth as such. My critique of afro-surrealism is that it is necessary tool of obstruction if we are too continue to tell the truth. There needs to be black artist willing to sacrifice the comfort most of us find ourselves in because we refuse to see what is happening “Right Now”. It is a burden to bear and the consequences may weigh heavily, but the outcome is usually the same; a bewildered critique wondering what the sunken place is? Or if they too, are from Saturn. Solange said, “I saw things I imagined” speaking surrealism into fruition. In conclusion, the artistic movement of afro-surrealism is arguably more than just an artistic expression, but a political one and a form of self-assertion. While it can be depicted through music, paintings, photography, collages, and visual media, it is certainly not limited to just those forms of articulation.Afro-surrealism gives audiences the chance to interpret injustice in a telling that can either be comical, scary, mundane, and exciting but all the same they are being exposed to the serious subject matter. Because of outstanding artist who have taken on the load of informing people of what is currently happening in America, we are all “privileged” enough to be exposed to this art, and to learn from it, and garner an understanding of how some people have to live. While afro-surrealism may impart some of it’s ‘wokeness’ on you, it’s main objective forces you see and hopefully care. You won’t care about capitalism, or racism, or the erasure of blackness until you ask the questions of why? And is that not what afro-surrealism is.