Cultural critic Mark Dery wrote a brilliant piece on the Surrealism Beyond Borders show at The Metropolitan Museum. Mark describes the show as "groundbreaking," one which "decolonizes official histories of the movement, cutting the ribbons on new Dreamlands and Luna Parks of the unconscious."
The show introduces us to new names and moves previously unknown or marginalized groups center stage. These offshoots reinterpreted Surrealism in the light of their cultural contexts and political situations, repurposing its volatile mix of Marx and Freud as an improvised explosive device to challenge authorities and subvert social norms. Often, they did so in ways never imagined by the movement's founders, in places far from the cafés of Montparnasse: Aleppo, Cairo, Cuba, Martinique, Haiti, Chicago, Tokyo, Shanghai, Seoul, Sydney, Nigeria, Lisbon, Bucharest, Mexico City, and beyond. All dream politics are local.
"We accepted Surrealism as a means, but not as an end; as an ally, and not as a master," recalled Léopold Senghor, the Senegalese poet and co-founder of the anti-colonial Négritude movement, in 1960. A case in point is Wifredo Lam, an Afro-Cuban painter of African, Chinese, and European descent who regarded his work as "an act of decolonization." From Surrealism Lam took the empowering insight that he "could act as a Trojan horse that would spew forth hallucinating images with the power to surprise, to disturb the dreams of the exploiters."
Threading your way through the maze of galleries, you'll encounter Turkish Surrealists steeped in Sufism, the "Scientific Surrealism" of a Japan future-shocked by the Machine Age, a Filipino artist who managed the improbable feat of reconciling his Catholicism (anathema to party-line Surrealists) with psychoanalysis, and Brazil's Antropofagia ("anthropophagy") movement.
Antropofagia was dedicated to the proposition that it was time to cannibalize the cannibals — the colonizers, that is, and even the Parisian Surrealists who exoticized folk cultures and Indigenous peoples as access points to the collective unconscious, antidotes to the straitjacketing rationalism and bourgeois conformity of modern Europe. "The cannibalism attributed to the country's Indigenous population served as a model for [Brazilian] modernists," writes Zita Cristina Nunes in her catalogue essay on the movement. "Foreign influences would no longer be copied but digested as a precondition for a new, independent nation."
Image: Screengrab from Met video