Mysticism, spirituality, and revolution: Black and Caribbean Surrealists at The Modern

The exhibition title, Surrealism and Us, references the essay “1943: Surrealism and Us” by Suzanne Césaire (1915-1966), a Martinique writer, feminist, and anti-colonialist. Césaire believed that the concepts, aesthetics, and power of Surrealism could encourage self-determination and independence.

Surrealism and Us: Caribbean and African Diasporic Artists since 1940 at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth from March 10 to July 28, presents an expanded interpretation of Afrosurreal and Afrofuturist art in the context of this historical framework. Some 80 paintings, sculptures, drawings, and videos by more than 60 artists comprise the exhibition, which is divided loosely into three groups—To Dare, Invisibility, and Super/Reality.

Organized by Curator María Elena Ortiz, the exhibition examines the ongoing influence of Surrealism on Black and Caribbean artists. Its timing celebrates the centennial anniversary of the first Surrealist manifesto published in 1924 by French writer André Breton.

Ortiz first imagined the show in 2017 after seeing the exhibition Art and Liberty: Rupture, War and Surrealism in Egypt 1938-1948. “It inspired me to think about parallel histories in the Caribbean,” said Ortiz, who is from Puerto Rico and has expertise in Caribbean, Latin American, and African diasporic art.

“I am interested in art history, so I wanted to curate a show with a historical starting point,” Ortiz said. “When we think of art history, we usually think of Western art, but there is a recent movement to investigate other types of art history.”

In 1941, a group of intellectuals, including Breton, artist Wilfredo Lam, and anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss, fled Nazi-occupied France for Martinique. Breton saw a copy of Tropiques, a literary review published by Césaire and her husband, Aimé, and subsequently developed a relationship with the couple.

The pro-Nazi Vichy government that controlled Martinique during World War II was corrupt, and Suzanne wrote about how Surrealism could keep hope alive: “Surrealism will lead the people to rise up and recover their freedom. When Breton created surrealism, the most urgent task was to free the mind from the shackles of absurd logic and the so-called Western reason.”

The works of art in the first section, “To Dare,” were inspired by creative, intellectual discourse in the Caribbean in the 1940s. Le Sombre Malembo, Dieu du carrefour (Dark Malembo, God of the Crossroads) by Cuban-born Lam leads this section. Lam studied in Madrid and then Paris, where he met Breton in 1939. With his African, Asian, European, and Latin American heritage, Lam was positioned to assimilate Picasso’s Afro-Cubism and Breton’s Surrealism. His work is a key example of how Surrealism evolved and expanded, not just from France to the West but through a broader network that included the Caribbean.

Lam inspired fellow Cuban artist Agustin Cárdenas and later José Bedia. Other artists in this section include Romare Bearden, who studied in Paris in the 1930s; Ted Joans, a self-proclaimed Black Surrealist who was friends with Lam and Breton in Paris; Roberto Matta, a Spanish Surrealist; and Haitian Vodou artist Hector Hyppolite.

The term Afrosurrealism, in contrast to mainstream European Surrealism, was coined by the writer Amiri Baraka, who spent time in Puerto Rico and Cuba. In the 1970s, he described it as “An aesthetics designed to expose the contradictions lived by people of color in a system of segregation, in which reality could only be described as surreal.” Inspired by Ralph Ellison’s novel Invisible Man, Baraka began his manifesto with “Behold the invisible!”

Thus, the section on “Invisibility” brings together artists who seek to reveal the dynamics and consequences of living in a repressed society. Hervé Télémaque was inspired to paint about the racism he experienced while living in New York, showing No Title (The Ugly American). Kerry James Marshall’s large figurative paintings depict Black men as “invisible,” and Kara Walker combines black silhouetted figures with light projections in Darkytown Rebellion. The book Five Poems by Toni Morrison, with artwork by Kara Walker, is also on display.

Ja’Tovia Gary’s installation pays homage to Zora Neale Hurston’s essay on a Southern folk trickster who entertained enslaved people. A neon desk and stool are bathed in red light, and an obsidian mirror engraved with a Hurston quote hangs behind it.

The third section, “Super/Reality,” includes artists who have been influenced by African diasporic religions—Haitian Vodou, Abakuá, and Santeria—and how they challenged imperialist domination. Haitian artist Myrlande Constant exhibits four beaded flags that reflect Vodou’s fusion of African spiritual beliefs with Catholic iconography. Constant’s father was a Vodou priest and her mother a seamstress, and she used her own needlework experience to create portraits of saints. Tout Ko Feray Se Dife references the African god Ogun, known as the god of iron, fire, justice, and political power.

Kenny Rivero was born in Washington Heights, but his Dominican upbringing included exposure to Vodou, Santeria, and Christianity. He often uses Afro-Caribbean symbols to address matters of love, death, gender, and violence.

Allora and Calzadilla’s Graft consists of artificially created blossoms from the Robel Amarillo tree, common throughout the Caribbean. The tree’s delicate pink and yellow blossoms are recreated with hand-painted polyvinyl and scattered across the floor to address the effects of climate change worldwide, specifically the powerful hurricanes that have destroyed millions of trees in the Caribbean. The Philadelphia-born Allora and Cuban-born Calzadilla live and work together in Puerto Rico.

An assemblage by Betye Saar explores mysticism, memory, and race. José Bedia’s Júbilo de Aponte illustrates the 1812 beheading of Jose Antonio Aponte, a free Black Cuban accused of organizing a rebellion against slavery, with a series of painted symbols. Also included is Arthur Jafa’s 2018 video, Love is the Message, The Message is Death, which explores the complexities of the Black experience.

The more than 700 islands that comprise the Caribbean were colonized by the Spanish, English, Dutch, French, and other nations, making it one of the most ethnically diverse in the world. This area is rich in mysticism, spirituality, and revolution, making it fertile ground for Surrealism.

“Expanding the conversation on Surrealism in American and international art, this exhibition enriches the canon by highlighting Black and Caribbean artists’ engagements with the movement,” said Ortiz. “This is one of the first shows of Caribbean artists in our region, and I am excited to share it with our audiences.”