Afrosurreal: The Marvelous And The Invisible 2016
An Afrosurreal manifestation is an artistic or critical expression that addresses or interacts with The Afrosurreal Manifesto. These expressions have shown themselves across artistic disciplines including film, literature, dance, visual art, installation work, interventions, and other “emancipatory projects.” They have revealed themselves in both grand declarations and single utterances reflecting the Manifesto and the aesthetic it both describes and ascribes. Whether positive or negative, any and all incidents that fall into the above criteria are Afrosurreal Manifestations.
Since the May 2009 publication of The Afrosurreal Manifesto in the “This Is Afrosurreal” issue of the San Francisco Bay Guardian (SFBG) there have been manifestations that seem to have grown exponentially every year. The Afrosurreal Arts Movement has gained momentum from the Manifesto being passed around on social media, being published in scholarly journals, discussed on panels, and has subsequently inspired artists and theorists to produce works through an Afrosurrealist lens. Penn State has had an “Afrosurrealist Narrative and the Silences of Literary Theory and History” class for two years; UC Davis, the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, the University of Colorado, Northwestern University, and many others now include the Manifesto in their curricula. With the release of Ytasha Womack’s Afrofuturism: The World of Black Sci-Fi and Fantasy Culture in 2013 — which includes a chapter devoted to The Afrosurreal — being included on reading lists all over the world, it is expected that many more colleges and universities will follow suit.
Terri Francis, organizer of The Afrosurrealist Film Festival in Negril, Jamaica, edited Indiana University Press’s international scholarly film journal Black Camera‘s “Close-Up: Afrosurrealism” (2013), while visual artists ranging from San Francisco’s Mark Saab and Christopher Burch, playwright Starry Finch, performance artist India Sky Davis to Chicago’s Krista Franklin and Devin Cain, to Cameroon born British– artist Adjani Okpu-Egbe, poet Erica Hunt, and New Yorker Tavia Nyong’o have proclaimed their bodies of work and practice to be Afrosurreal.
As the author of the Manifesto, and as a practicing Afrosurrealist, I am called to do more than watch the “Manifesto manifest.” I must chronicle, compile, track and analyze these manifestations in an attempt to find connections and causal links, in hopes of aiding the movement towards “The Marvelous” that has begun to take shape before our eyes.
Though much has been written and said about artist/activist/statesmen Aimé Césaire, much more needs to written about his partner Suzanne, a brilliant surrealist thinker, and mother of the Afrosurreal aesthetic. Her quest for “The Marvelous” over the “miserablism” expressed in the usual arts of protest inspired the Tropiques surrealist group, and especially René Ménil.
“The true task of mankind consists solely in the attempt to bring the marvelous into real life,” Ménil says in “Introduction to the Marvelous,” “so that life can become more encompassing. So long as the mythic imagination is not able to overcome each and every boring mediocrity, human life will amount to nothing but useless, dull experiences, just killing time, as they say.”
Suzanne Césaire’s proclamation, “Be in permanent readiness for The Marvelous,” quickly became a credo of the movement; the word “marvelous” has since become re-contextualized with regard to contemporary black arts and interventions.
On January 15, 2013, New York University’s Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development and The Performa Institute presented “Get Ready for the Marvelous: Black Surrealism in Dakar, Fort de France, Havana, Johannesburg, New York City, Paris, Port au Prince, 1932-2013.”
The context-setting keynote address, entitled “Blues People and the Poetic Spirit: Recovering Surrealism’s Revolutionary Politics,” was given by Robin D.G. Kelley, and participants included Awam Ampka, Simone Leigh, Gabi Ngcobo, Tavia Nyong’o, Paul D. Miller a.k.a. “DJ Spooky, That Subliminal Kid,” Wangechi Mutu, and Greg Tate.
Less than two weeks later, on January 28, Columbia College Chicago’s Department of Exhibition and Performance Spaces, in conjunction with School of the Art Institute of Chicago, presented Marvelous Freedom: Vigilance of Desire, Revisited. Curated by School of the Art Institute of Chicago BFA candidate Alexandria Eregbu, Marvelous Freedom: Vigilance of Desire, Revisited engaged the richness of Chicago’s Surrealist history in order to extend, expand, and re-impose new visions of 21st century Afrosurrealist aesthetics and cultural concerns, re-examining Marvelous Freedom/Vigilance of Desire, the Surrealist exhibition that took place in Chicago in 1976.
This exhibition bridged the work of ten exceptional Chicago-based artists: Devin Cain, Krista Franklin, Kenrick McFarlane, Stephen Flemister, avery r. young, Hannah Rodriguez, Chelsea Sheppard, Michael Tousana, Cecil McDonald, Jr., and Christina Long. Paul and Beth Garon (authors of Blues and Poetic Spirit, 1975) Penelope Rosemont (curator, along with her late husband Franklin, of the original Marvelous Freedom exhibit, and first couple acknowledged as American Surrealists by Paris’s Surrealists International), and photographer Dawoud Bey were some the artists and influences in attendance.
I was invited to participate in the exhibit and give lectures at School of the Art Institute of Chicago and Columbia College Chicago’s Arcade Gallery. A limited letterpress edition of 500 copies of The Afrosurreal Manifesto was produced as a companion piece to the exhibition. It was offset printed at Columbia College Chicago’s Center for Book & Paper Arts by Clifton Meador with covers letterpress printed by April Sheridan and Krista Franklin. Ben Blount used elements from a mask drawn by Krista Franklin, which gave the edition a feel of being from both the past and the future. This edition sold out in less than eleven months, and City Lights Bookstore still get requests from around the world for it.
The largest single utterance of The Afrosurreal happened on April 25, 2014, with the release of Kara Walker’s seventy-five foot sugar sphinx constructed in a storage shed of the Domino sugar factory, on the East River in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn, New York. Walker has been a long-time supporter of the movement, and her title for this “homage to the unpaid and overworked Artisans who have refined our Sweet tastes from the cane fields to the Kitchens of the New World” was A Subtlety: The Marvelous Sugar Baby.
November 8th, 2014 saw Erin Christovale and Amir George’s “Black Radical Imagination” Afrosurreal-focused traveling festival come to Yerba Buena Center for The Arts. Focusing on The Marvelous through the context of cinema, the program included Black Bullets and Black Magic at the White House by Jeannette Ehlers, The Baptist by Lewis Vaughn, Moonrising by Terence Nance and Sanford Biggers, Get the Bones from 88 Jones Because She Also Eats Meat by Lauren Kelley, American Hunger by Ephraim Asili, and Field Notes by Vashti Harrison.
That night, filmmaker Terence Nance joined Christovale and George for a Q&A moderated by Danielle Jackson following their screening.
In July 2016 Afrosurreal entered the political realm through Black Lives Matters Toronto as guests of that city’s Gay Pride parade, where participants staged a protest for greater inclusion of people of color, and where the indigenous population used Afrosurrealism as their rallying call. With a list of demands that were all met, this was the most successful Black Lives Matter protest to date.
What does The Afrosurreal Manifesto inspire in the reader to want them to express from within the parameters of the manifesto? Why do artists and theorists align to and with it?
When I wrote the Manifesto at the behest of SFBG editor Johnny Ray Huston, I had not envisioned anyone actually applying it to actual events. To me, it’s a piece of art first and foremost; a declarative and evocative poem meant to speak directly to the first Futurist Manifesto, written by the Italian poet Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, published in the Italian newspaper Gazzetta dell’Emilia in Bologna on February 5, 1909. I had engaged with that manifesto, and my many others, as I researched the arts manifesto in form and function through Mary Ann Caws definitive work: Manifesto: A Century of Isms. The rage and lust for speed, war, and misogyny spoke to pre-fascist Europe and influenced many of the artistic, social, and political movements for the last one hundred years. Though the first Surrealist Manifesto came fifteen years later, if you placed Futurism against Surrealism, it’s clear that Futurism and the illusion of progress overcame Surrealism.
With the rise of Afrofuturism, I saw many of the same traits of Futurism becoming embedded in it. Afrofuturism began to reflect the same love for speed, the same belief in the superiority of technology over craft, and seemed to be working towards establishing nationalism within its core tenets. Though — or maybe because — Afrofuturism lacked the cohesion that a manifesto provides, it had begun to veer into superstition, anti-intellectualism, and exclusion. I believe that there were quite a few people who were witnessing the same thing, but were given no alternative. The black avant-garde artist, the woman artist, the gay artist, the disenfranchised and under/mis-represented had nothing in the contemporary zeitgeist that speculated on a real-time, unifying, collective vision.
On a personal level, the discovery of The Afrosurreal was a liberating experience. I crafted the manifesto as a dispatch from that initial zone of discovery. In one way, it was written as an attempt to undo a great error: the triumph of Futurism. In another, it was a call to the invisible inhabitants of these contested spaces to build community around, and through, the unique absurdity of our time. As I watch the manifesto continue to manifest, I believe what I see is Suzanne Césaire’s vision coming marvelously to fruition.
There is “The Marvelous,” and on the other side of the coin is “The Invisible.” There is a way that invisibility is defined in the Wikipedia definitions that apply exclusively to Ralph Ellison’s The Invisible Man. This kind of invisibility relates to not being seen because one is not acknowledged or is overlooked due to their oppressed status or social standing. Wiki defines this as “psychological invisibility.”
The Afrosurreal Manifesto has come under its share of criticism, and by looking at a few examples, it can be seen how the invisibility introduced by the ubiquitous but unseen Rhinehart The Runner at the start of the Manifesto has allowed the Afrosurreal to see itself as “others see me not.”
The prime example being “African Renaissance, How the Prefix ‘Afro-‘ May Arrest Imagination & Manifesto Salesmanship” (also published under a slightly different title at This is Africa), by South African filmmaker Phetogo Tshepo Mahasha for Shadow and Act in July 2013. In the piece he asks, “Why call it Afro-Surrealism if it is not Surrealism? Why prefix the word Surrealism with ‘Afro-’? Most importantly, since it is so different from surrealism, why not call it something entirely new?” before concluding that, “The prefix ‘afro-’ has acquired a parasitic character, leeching off manifestos. And it has the capacity to arrest African imagination, so that the African imagination follows other manifestos, only to attach itself to them and never coming up with an original of its own.”
His piece sparked discussions throughout discussion boards, classrooms, and cafes around the country either for or against the use of the prefix “afro” in such new terms as Afrofuturism and Afro-Punk. From the Afrosurrealist perspective, the fact that the term “Afrosurreal” was adopted — with consent — from a 1974 essay by Amiri Baraka (“Henry Dumas: Afro-Surreal Expressionist”) and is pointed out in the Manifesto, renders the antecedent conversations moot. One would have only had to look at the first paragraph to have seen it. Afrosurreal had already answered the question BEFORE it was asked, but was never seen/read.
In spite of the presence and the immediate impact the Manifesto has had on avant-garde letters, art, and culture, some have attempted to use its tenets and lexicon without acknowledging the Manifesto or the movement itself. Others have tried to make Afrosurreal a sub-category of The Afrofuturist movement.
Mark Dery, the NYU Professor in Media Studies who coined the term “Afrofuturism” became openly involved in the long dormant Afrofuturism Wikipedia page soon after the Afrosurreal Manifesto was published. This inspired a surge in submissions that attempted to re-define Afrofuturism closer to an Afrosurreal ideal by co-opting Afrosurreal artists, many of whom are incongruent with Afrofuturism, and labeling Afrosurreal as a “grotesque” and “mutant” strain of Afrofuturism. Seeing that the Afrosurreal focus has always been on “The Marvelous”, both labels seemed to say neither Dery nor his cohorts had read the manifesto or refused to see and react to its actual impact.
What accounts for this “psychological invisibility” that so aptly echoes Ellison’s conception?
In Renegade Poetics, Evie Shockley says of Afrosurreal poet Will Alexander that “his complicated (but not ambivalent) engagement with African and African Diasporic cultures and the art and though produced in a variety of non-Anglo American contexts accounts for his having been virtually invisible with the African American poetry tradition — and being much celebrated, though not much written about, by predominantly white American avant-garde communities. This critical invisibility does not trouble him, which perhaps should not be surprising, given his self-described “alacrity for what the mechanically inclined call The Invisible.”
Invisibility is not the same as absence. In fact, Ellisonian invisibility is based on “inattentional blindness, a psychological lack of attention and is not associated with any vision defects or deficits. Research suggests that the phenomenon can occur in any individual, independent of cognitive deficits. When it simply becomes impossible for one to attend to all the stimuli in a given situation, a temporary blindness effect can take place as a result; that is, individuals fail to see objects or stimuli that are unexpected and quite often salient.”
The key is actually Rhinehart. The underworld figure is a drug-dealer, a pimp, a local tough with a bad reputation, AND a preacher! In the manifesto, I quoted Ellison’s protagonist who says Rhinehart is, “way ahead of him.” How? Rhinehart does not see his invisibility as a detriment by having “the alacrity for what the mechanically inclined call the invisible.” Though he interacts with all these people, no one knows what he looks like. He has no face, how else could he be both mistaken by some, and easily imitated by others? The power of Rhinehart is that the more he is unseen/ignored/snubbed, the greater his maneuverability and, thus, his influence.
In all mythology, invisibility is an asset. To be invisible is to wield influence without anyone being aware the agent. How is this not a virtue?
The Afrosurreal Manifesto is, in fact, the fourth Afrosurreal Manifesto to come out of The Bay Area over the last fifty years. Afrosurrealist Poet Bob Kaufman wrote The Abomunist Manifesto in 1959, Ishmael Reed wrote the highly influential Neo-Hoodoo Manifesto in 1970, and Ted Joans wrote A Black Manifesto in Jazz, Poetry and Prose in 1971. Bay Area manifestos focusing on Black Radical imagination is an invisible tradition, an occult canon, and my interior support comes from being a part of that tradition.
In an age where everyone seems to be fighting for attention, to “raise their profiles,” mine has been risen through the same Afrosurreal cloak of invisibility of Will Alexander and Zora Neale Hurston. The subject matter alone causes an over-stimulation that renders blindness in the overly-ambitious, the sycophantic, and the parasitic. My cloak is called The Afrosurreal Manifesto.
As I’ve watched Afrofuturism go mainstream, attempting to cram Afrosurreal influence into sub-headings and miscatagorization, I have, as instructed, remained in the present. Afrosurreal calls for a “far-reaching moral revolution,” to quote Afrosurrealist poet Ted Joans, that begins with the self, right now. That it’s about understanding that we are all one in the march towards liberation from repression, suppression, blind authority, and useless power. This is, as Amira Baraka said to me in an interview a few years ago, “The struggle that has to be.”