Lambasting Reality

Lambasting Reality

SURREALISM ENTERED INTO A MAGNETIC exchange with Négritude in the 1930s and 1940s. The former aimed to disorder conventional forms, liberate the imagination, and challenge the notion of objective reality while delving into the oneiric, mystical, and suppressed. The latter movement, meanwhile, advocated for the legitimacy, specificity, and autonomy of Black civilizations, worldviews, and cultures. In Surrealism, Négritude found a consonant spirit of grinning rebellion, as well as an effective methodology for refuting the colonial world order. The initial encounter between them officially occurred when their respective founding figures—André Breton, and Suzanne and Aimé Césaire respectively—met, exchanged letters, and read each other’s works.

This dynamic interplay and its resulting methods live on in recent moving-image works by Nuotama Bodomo, Ja’Tovia Gary, Christopher Harris, and Madeleine Hunt-Ehrlich. These Black experimental filmmakers are honoring and reenergizing Négritude and Surrealism by excavating the past in order to challenge dominant social paradigms and aesthetics in the present. While some of their works are threaded with Surrealism’s formal markers—the anarchic playfulness, temporal disorganization, and kaleidoscopic close-ups in Gary’s An Ecstatic Experience (2015); the erratic tempo, undisciplined camerawork, and dream logic in Hunt-Ehrlich’s Spit on the Broom (2019)—others engage Négritude’s Black cultural workers as subjects. These artists purposely derange cinema by employing nonlinear time, conjoining analog and digital techniques, producing unstable images, repeating visuals and sounds, and toying with forms of concealment and camouflage. These subversive techniques assault the camera’s pretense to being an objective index and lambaste the concept of a universal reality.

For the most part, these filmmakers conjure the historic movements through imaginatively oblique forms, though Hunt-Ehrlich’s direct engagement with Négritude as her film’s subject serves as a compelling point of entry. The New York–born and –based artist is currently working on a film about Suzanne Césaire, who was a key architect of the convergences between Négritude and Surrealism. The Martinican artist and writer was driven to disinvest from the illusion of cohesion, which she explored in her heterogeneous essays and collages. Many were published in the literary review Tropiques (1941–45), which Césaire cofounded with her husband, Aimé, and other Martinican writers. In a 2016 article for the French Review, scholar Kara Rabbitt described Césaire’s strand of Caribbean Surrealism as one that “functions as a creolized, active process of cultural choice and creation.” This made Surrealism “neither a doctrine nor a gift, but a weapon and a choice to be actively selected and taken up by these Caribbean writers.” Colonialism and imperialism have worked to portray Black cultures as uniform, primitive, and stuck in an unchanging past. By citing and reengaging Négritude, Hunt-Ehrlich works to create a hybrid counternarrative by way of Césaire, insisting that viewers see those cultures instead as manifold and mobile.

A grayscale photo of a black astronaut seen through their helmet.

Nuotama Bodomo: Afronauts, 2014, video, 14 minutes.

More than a subject, though, Césaire has inspired contemporary filmmakers to take up her commitment to fragmented plurality. In her 1945 essay “Le Grand Camouflage,” the author emphasized poetic seeing as an active process, and advocated looking beyond what seems immediately visible. She noted how the extravagant natural beauty of Martinique could at times mask its violent history. Césaire warned against the functions of camouflage, which could distract from a lucid confrontation with the layered effects of colonialism, and called upon poets, with their particular perceptiveness, to see through this dangerous “hide and seek.” These more recent artists have retooled concealment as their own strategy, exploring its conceptual possibilities. Their approach to camouflage offers a way to consider how Black film might disrupt rigidly ordered colonial and bourgeois worldviews, creatively employing the camera to reveal or hint at what is not there but could be—or what might be there while remaining hidden.

Hunt-Ehrlich’s exquisite short Spit on the Broom, which she calls a “surrealist documentary,” is one example of this camouflage. The film revisits the history of the United Order of Tents, a group of Black women who clandestinely organized mutual aid efforts during the Reconstruction. The 11-minute piece is inflected with the Surrealist affinity for whimsical elements, wayward irreverence, and unexpected juxtapositions. One scene shows a table with brightly colored cakes that disintegrate over the course of several shots, and another has a disembodied arm holding a hand mirror in front of bamboo trees. Apart from a voiceover that draws from public records and newspapers, it reveals nothing of the secret organization of the United Order of Tents directly, and Spit on the Broom makes no pretense of being entirely factual or complete. The film instead allusively honors the subversive history of these Black women without placing them under scrutiny. This work was screened along with Hunt-Ehrlich’s Outfox the Grave (2020) and two works by Bodomo—Afronauts (2014) and Boneshaker (2013)—in the “Black Surreal” segment of an October 2020 program on Black women’s experimental filmmaking at Princeton University, co-curated by artist Simone Leigh and theorist Tina Campt. During the talk preceding the screening, the two filmmakers discussed tactical forms of veiling, the ethics of secrecy, and a shared imperative of using their images to expose as well as protect. Both artists were suspicious of the possibility of total visual truth.

Madeleine Hunt-Ehrlich: Spit on the Broom, 2019, video, 11 minutes.

Cinema scholar Terri Francis first identified the relevance of Surrealism to contemporary Black experimental filmmaking in a 2013 essay for Black Camera, adopting the term “Afro-Surrealist Expressionism,” from the poet Amiri Baraka, who coined it in 1974. Francis wrote that “Afrosurrealism might be a sous-realism, a realism beneath.” This claim evokes what is revealed in the interstice between Surrealism and Négritude: the contested terrain of the “real.” And in fact, one of the very first works of scholarship on African cinema—filmmaker Paulin Soumanou Vieyra’s 1975 book, Le Cinéma africain: des origines à 1973—relates the Surreal to Black art specifically as a practice of uncovering what is concealed. He contends that “Negro art appears as a surreal manifestation of a reality beyond visible reality.” It therefore calls for a particular mode of viewing: “beyond appearance, [Negro art] demands, in order to be grasped, the participation of one’s entire being. And so are revealed the truths of hidden things.” More recently, artist and writer D. Scot Miller claimed in his key 2013 text “Afrosurreal Manifesto: Black Is the New Black—a 21st-Century Manifesto,” that the “Afrosurreal presupposes that beyond the visible world, there is an invisible world striving to manifest, and it is our job to uncover it.” The filmmakers drawing from these traditions are keenly aware of what lies outside dominant cinematic frames. Crucially, their approach to uncovering evades surveillance, mastery, and absolute exposure, which are the domain of colonial visuality, to instead enact processes of camouflage. They use speculative, Surrealist techniques to undercut a singular hegemonic reality.

CHALLENGING DOMINANT VISUAL CULTURE has been a long-standing task for Black filmmakers—particularly those consciously reckoning with the racist and colonialist foundations of cinematic technologies. In addition to strategies of camouflage, Black cultural workers then and now have recuperated interrupted ancestries and historical lineages with an inventive impulse—not passively re-citing the past, but activating it, illuminating the continuities of both oppressive systems and resistance against them.

The cinema of Nuotama Bodomo—a nomadic filmmaker of Dagaaba origin currently based in Tamale, Ghana—explores the capacity of the moving image to open onto globally sidelined realities. Her morbid and marvelous Everybody dies! (2016) is a 9-minute fictional work masquerading as a hypothetical public access program in which a Black woman named Ripa the Reaper teaches children about death. The short is a darkly funny parody of an educational program with featurettes such as the “Murder Map,” “Whack a Soul,” and “What’s the Right Answer?” Before the last of these segments, she sends the white kids out of the room and leaves only the Black children to engage in the game, but no questions are asked. Every answer they give is declared wrong, and the losers end up stuffed behind a door labeled death. The short is peppered with allusions to the distinct dangers that Black children face: the police, a stranger acting like the police, exclusions from the innocence of childhood, and assumptions of criminality. Bodomo’s Surrealist twist on the tropes of the kids’ television program genre is manipulated into a reckoning with the realities buried beneath a supposed universal appeal.

Grayscale photo of an astronaut seen from behind looking over a vast terrain.

Nuotama Bodomo: Afronauts, 2014, video, 14 minutes.

Critics and curators have consistently identified Afrosurrealist elements in Bodomo’s films, and Afrofuturist tendencies in the case of her 14-minute short, Afronauts (2014). While the latter concept refers specifically to speculative forms of Afrodiasporic cultural expression that draw from science fiction, imagining an alternative future for Black people, both styles are fundamentally unbound from normative realism, and both resist provincializing Blackness. Afronauts turns to a lesser-known story of the global space race: a science teacher named Edward Makuka Nkoloso founded the unofficial Zambian space academy in the late 1960s. The short, which Bodomo is currently turning into a feature, illustrates what the filmmaker sees as an “African everyday,” pointing out that any distinctions between the real and surreal must take cultural context into account.

Although the film moves with a dreamy quality and uses techniques like slow-motion and spinning camerawork, it is not necessarily futuristic or otherworldly. Afronauts is centered on a young woman, based on the real-life adolescent Matha Mwamba, who is being trained to be the first Zambian citizen to carry out a space mission. The narrative foregrounds interpersonal tensions, the question of individual sacrifice for a collective dream, and patriotism in an international context. While Afronauts involves space and science fiction, the film is less concerned with hypothesizing about the future than with calling up a suppressed history and relocating it in the present. Bodomo’s deeply historical project may have the thematic markers of Afrofuturism, but its impact is more reminiscent of Afrosurrealism. The key difference is that while Afrofuturism imagines futures that are not predetermined by a present global reality, it does not necessarily call that reality into question. The urgency of Afrosurrealism, on the other hand, is that it disputes the monopoly of a normative, universal reality. In Afronauts, certain shots of the trainee astronaut with her orb-like helmet, standing on sandy dunes against a starry night sky, make it seem as though she could already be on the moon, or has landed there by the end. Whether or not the mission was successful remains irresolvable, and Bodomo’s cinematic method intentionally evades litigation over what parts are “real” or not. The film allows for a pluralistic and counter-hegemonic perception of reality.

Christopher Harris: A Willing Suspension of Disbelief, 2014, video, 17 minutes.

A Willing Suspension of Disbelief + Photography and Fetish (2014) by Christopher Harris, an artist and University of Iowa professor, is a stunning moving-image study of the camera’s colonial underpinnings. Comprising six videos shown in a three-channel, split-screen installation, the work is a surreal citation of a daguerreotype depicting Delia Taylor, an enslaved woman, whose portrait was commissioned in 1850 by Louis Agassiz, a Harvard professor invested in proving that Black and white people were in fact separate species. In Harris’s film, the actress standing in for Taylor reads fragments of Roland Barthes’s Camera Lucida, Toni Morrison’s Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination, and critic-curator Brian Wallis’s Black Bodies, White Science: Louis Agassiz’s Slave Daguerreotypes. The work’s collage-like composition, piecing together disparate texts, evokes the Surrealist method of juxtaposition that André Breton, quoting the Comte de Lautréamont, famously summarized as “beautiful as the chance encounter of a sewing machine and an umbrella on an operating table.” Whereas Breton and other European Surrealists leaned toward a generalized form of disruption that was sometimes its own end, Harris, like the Black Surrealists who were Breton’s contemporaries, has a more precise political goal. The filmmaker scrambles the visual and sonic to subvert the firmly anti-Black and colonial biases of both the camera and Agassiz’s supposedly neutral scientific project.

Harris’s Halimuhfack (2016) employs another set of disorientating techniques in conjunction with an internationalist approach. The work combines educational footage of the Masai with footage of an actress lip-synching to a recording of Zora Neale Hurston describing her anthropological method (alongside her more well-known work as a novelist, she was also a cultural anthropologist and filmmaker). The actress appears seated in front of the screen on which the ethnographic film is projected, and the non-synchronicity between the audio and her moving mouth creates a formal disjuncture. Over the course of the 4-minute short, the aural and visual registers become increasingly chaotic. Three-quarters of the way through, the words become entirely indistinguishable as the ethnographic footage plays more and more erratically. Order collapses, and the footage of the Masai swirls around in a dreamy distortion.

The global dimension of this film, linking East Africa and the southern United States, relates it to the Pan-Africanist dimension of Négritude, showing  how these contemporary moving image artists are also working toward resisting the imperial organization of the world. The composite geographies in Harris’s Halimuhfack remind viewers that Négritude was propelled in part by the desire for a reconnection between the African continent and its diasporas. Its aesthetic discombobulations and spatial collapse sidestep the colonial divisions that separated and dispersed Black peoples.

A consonant Black Internationalism is also mobilized in Dallas-born Ja’Tovia Gary’s video installation The Giverny Suite (2020). Using a series of interviews she filmed in Harlem, New York, the work brings together Black women from across the globe. The three-channel work cycles through footage, some shot by the artist and some found, conjuring such things as the artist’s time in Claude Monet’s gardens in northern France, Haiti in the aftermath of the U.S. invasion, and Diamond Reynolds’s livestream following the police murder of her boyfriend, Philando Castile.

Ja’Tovia Gary: The Giverny Suite (detail), 2020, three-channel video, 39 minutes, 56 seconds.

Gary’s moving image practice, like Harris’s, relies on recontextualizing images, which not only recalls Surrealist juxtapositions, but also serves as a tool for portraying transnational solidarity across colonial borders. Gary and Harris both toy with images that are tactically misplaced to summon realities obscured by the normative grammar of dominant cinema, including linear narrative order and coherent organizations of space. In the 6 minute An Ecstatic Experience (2015), Gary’s archival footage, accompanied by recordings of Black churchgoers and jazz composer Alice Coltrane’s instrumental “Journey in Satchidananda” (1971), is splotched with magenta and turquoise that Gary painted onto the celluloid by hand, yielding a phantasmic beauty. Other scenes show actor Ruby Dee in a 1965 TV segment, speaking the words of the enslaved Black Southern woman Fannie Moore as she describes her mother’s rapturous eruption while working in a field, declaring she had found a spiritual release from slavery. In an ecstatic outpouring followed by a choir singing, she cries, “I’m free! I’m free!” A scene in which Black Liberation Army member Assata Shakur describes her 1979 escape from prison echoes this fervor. The film’s montage brings this paragon of self-determined Black liberation (still a fugitive from her 1977 murder conviction) into relation with protest footage from Ferguson and Baltimore. Gary reveals these distinct historical junctures as intimately bound.

In his canonical 1981 essay “On Repetition in Black Culture,” scholar James Snead characterized Black culture’s transformative repetitions, in which “the thing (the ritual, the dance, the beat) is ‘there for you to pick it up when you come back to get it.’” He was alluding to the capacities of collective refashioning over time. It is in this spirit that these filmmakers revitalize Surrealism and Négritude, producing dynamic modes of encounter that honor the earlier movements’ commitments while responding to a plenitude of past and present realities. These contemporary filmmakers can be seen as part of a continuum of disruptive Black cultural workers. Using the camera as their tool, these artists, like their forebears, contest the presumption of a universal “real” as a norm against which the “surreal” could be defined. The hallucinatory representational spaces these Black experimental filmmakers create emphatically insist on a multiplicity of realities—some of which must be made visible, some of which best remain concealed.

Correction, 4/28/22, 2:00 p.m.: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that Amiri Baraka coined the term Afrosurrealism in 1988. He coined the term Afro-Surrealist Expressionism in 1974. 

This article appears in the April 2022 issue, pp. 72–77.

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