There he was, dangling into the void. Sinking, arms outstretched, helplessly clawing at the air. Jordan Peele’s satirical horror Get Out introduced us to the “sunken place”, a purgatory where Daniel Kaluuya’s character is trapped by body-snatching white liberals. As otherworldly as the Salvador Dalí-designed dream sequence in Alfred Hitchcock’s Spellbound, it was the scene that planted Afro-surrealism firmly in the mainstream.
It also symbolised the revival of a genre in which strangeness and blacknessnot only co-exist but are impossible to separate. In recent years we’ve had Atlanta, a show its creator Donald Glover proudly called a “black Twin Peaks”, and a host of film-makers including Kahlil Joseph, Arthur Jafa and Jenn Nkiru, who have given a hallucinatory edge to the music of Kendrick Lamar, Flying Lotus, Kamasi Washington and Beyoncé. Joseph’s video to Flying Lotus’s Until the Quiet Comes reimagines Watts in Los Angeles as a phantasmagoric playground where a murdered black man’s body dances, bullet-ridden and bloodied, through the projects. Jafa’s video installation Love Is the Message, the Message Is Death is a collage of images; athletes and artists from LeBron James to Drake are interspersed with footage of police beating black people and civil-rights unrest, while a huge psychedelic sun burns in the background – coming in and out of the mix like a harbinger of impeding doom.
Earlier this year in the United States, writer and director Terence Nance’s sketch show Random Acts of Flyness sent up police violence, white saviour syndrome and everyday racism in a style described by the New York Times as “kaleidoscopic, nearly unclassifiable”. And this week sees the UK release of Boots Riley’s satire Sorry to Bother You, which uses surrealism to comment on race, sexuality and capitalism.
So why is the Afro-surrealist revival happening now? And is escaping into the strange and fantastical simply a natural response to living in a world bound by structural racism?
According to Terri Francis, director of the Black Film Center/Archive at the University of Indiana, 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. “I think their work is very realistic in representing the absurdity of black life,” says Francis. “[In America] the ideals are there and you’re aware of what should be going on … but that’s not the reality.”
This is far from the first time black artists have turned to the weird and dreamlike to explain and examine their circumstances. “We’ve forgotten the history of surrealism,” says Francis. “Initially, it included African and African-Caribbean artists; André Breton was very close to Aimé Césaire. Their sense of surrealism was not segregated. A lot of that work that we celebrate as being surrealist is drawing its inspiration from African art and African American music.”
Césaire, a poet from Martinique, was part of the Négritude movement in 1930s France, a collective of African artists from former French colonies who created a new vision of modern Africa from French culture, pan-African thinking and surrealism. Emerging a decade after the Harlem Renaissance, Négritude produced perhaps the most remarkable early Afro-surrealist: Léopold Sédar Senghor, a Senegalese poet and socialist who would become the country’s first president in 1960. He believed art could power his country’s economy in a postcolonial world; at one point his government was pumping 25% of the state’s budget into its ministry of culture.
At the same time, American writer Henry Dumas was producing work that would see him dubbed an “Afro-surreal expressionist” by the US intellectual Amiri Baraka, who first coined the term. Dumas was born in Arkansas in 1934. After a stint in the US air force, he began a writing career that would marry the bizarre with ideas of black identity and power. In short stories, poetry and more experimental projects (Dumas created accompaniments to the work of the Afro-futurist figurehead and jazz musician Sun Ra), Dumas used surrealism to question the social strife of African Americans and the negligent attitude of the white ruling class. “When a Negro boy is shot and killed by policemen who do not check the situation before pulling their guns, the people get angry. It is a simple law of nature,” he wrote in his short story Riot or Revolt. In a tragic, ironic twist, Dumas was shot and killed by a transit cop in a New York City subway station in 1968.
Baraka wrote that Dumas’s work was made up of magical “morality tales” that were “constructed in weirdness”. Some of his work, such as the story of a group of right-on white jazz fans who demand entry to a black jazz club but die because their bodies can’t physically handle the potency of the music, could easily have come from the mind of Riley or Nance today. So is that same frustration with everyday racism the reason a new generation of black film-makers and artists reaching for the surreal again? For Francis, the only way to explain the reality of life for black people in America is through the extraordinary.
“I’ve always thought about Afro-surrealism as something that is not wild and crazy,” she says. “It’s like Random Acts of Flyness or Sorry To Bother You, they’re extra real. They are about moments and what is going on in the now, and it’s that revelation about a once hidden or lesser known reality that makes the work have that impact.”
In Random Acts of Flyness, Nance creates vignettes that examine the absurdity of race relations in America. In one sketch, he hires a white friend who appears to vouch for him whenever he’s stopped by a police officer. Another, White Angel, focuses on a narcissistic director who uses a friend’s adopted Malawian child as a muse for a grotesque white saviour film, playing with ideas of Hollywood’s self-satisfaction, exploitation of black suffering and virtue signalling.
In Atlanta’s second season, the episode Woods sees the rapper Paper Boi flee into a forest after being mugged. There, time and reality shifts as he’s chased by a mystical junkie who taunts him for not making more of his life. Just as David Lynch’s warped vision of smalltown America revealed the darkness that lingered underneath, the Afro-surreal cohort are expressing the sheer bizarreness of having to cope with a racist society.
Ralph Ellison, whose novel Invisible Man – along with Toni Morrison’s Beloved – is arguably the most famous Afro-surrealist work of literature, dug the fantastical foundations for Man Booker prize winner Paul Beatty’s The Sellout and Colston Whitehead’s Pulitzer triumph The Underground Railroad. Ellison told an interviewer he “was just being true to reality”. Today’s artists are sometimes loth to embrace the surrealist tag fully as well. “We certainly don’t approach episodes and say, ‘Hey guys, let’s make sure this script is surreal!’” explains Stefani Robinson, one of the lead writers on Atlanta. “We’re a very specific group of individuals who are probably more drawn to the unusual, the strange, and the otherworldly. It’s just personal taste, not a verbalised mandate.”
Similarly, Kevin Jerome Everson – the experimental artist whose films about working-class black life point at what Francis calls “the blues at the core of Afro-surrealism” – is conscious of his work being completely misread by the art world’s predominantly white gatekeepers. He was weary of certain institutions that wanted to screen his film Tonsler Park, which captures life inside a voting station in Charlottesville, Virginia during the 2016 US election. “They wanted to show it during the election and they said it was anti-Trump,” he explains. “It didn’t have anything to do with that.
The white ruling class thinks because there are black people in it, they can only see us as a political entity. You are still in the service society, so you’re still serving them. I’m not down with that.”
Francis believes one of the core tenets of Afro-surrealism is its introspective nature, where metaphors like the sunken place are used to explore painful truths. “The journey of Afro-surrealism is inward,” says Francis. “It’s about imagining how your interior world works and staying in that place to reckon with your everyday.” In that sense you can include the work of Michaela Coel’s Chewing Gum and Issa Rae’s Insecure, which both delve into the rarely explored (in mainstream culture, anyway) interior world of black women.
Everson believes younger artists see the liberating potential of the genre. “I think everyone was used to seeing things as ‘real’ in African American culture,” he says. “Once people looked back at Funkadelic they realised, ‘Oh wow, people used their imagination.’” George Clinton’s group would descend on stage from the P-Funk Mothership, a 1,200-pound aluminum stage prop that fit in with the group’s intergalactic self-mythologising, developed after Clinton and bass player Bootsy Collins claimed to have encountered a UFO. “Black people have always used their imagination,” adds Everson. “And I think the young people freaked out because in popular culture there seemed to be no avenue to use their imagination.”
Now, surrealism is spreading. The New Negress Film Society is a collective of film-makers, including Ja’Tovia Gary, who use dreamlike elements, and which supports black female directors and artists. Young directors from the African diaspora including Adoma Owusu, Cecile Emeke, Chinonye Chukwu and Frances Bodomo (who directed four episodes of Random Acts of Flyness) have all experimented with the surreal in their films. In June, Jenn Nkiru worked on the Afro-surreal video for Beyoncé and Jay-Z’s Apeshit, which cut between images of staid old masters in the Louvre and black America’s biggest power couple. As an art form, Afro-surrealism has taken root.
“Just about any black person is an Afro-surrealist because you have to be able to imagine something more than what is right in front of you,” explains Francis. “You need to have that sixth sense to be able to understand white people and where you’re safe. You also have to imagine another world beyond this one, where you are just a normal person living your life.”