As a movement that always declared the validity of subjective, internal realities, Surrealism is easily associated with ancient and new magical rituals, which aim to write those internal realities large upon the external world. Spells, possessions, séances, potions, incantations, rain-dances, and the like, deny the obvious divide between futile will and obstinate reality. In this way, André Breton’s “Letter to Seers” praises the power of even the most petty psychics as agents of delusion, for their role in causing people to confuse “the accomplishable fact and the accomplished fact” (201). This rebellion against rationality makes sense within the context of the Enlightenment, which in the early twentieth century still imposed the heavy-handed obligations of science, objectivity and truth on academic painters and humanist poets. The Surrealist groups in Europe sought a return to primitivism, to the irrationality, wonder, and creativity of Giorgio de Chirico’s pre-logical “original man” (14). And they gravitated towards the magical, exotic atmosphere described by André Breton and André Masson in the essay “Creole Dialogue”.

But Black Surrealists such as Wifredo Lam from Cuba, or the American Will Alexander adopting the voice of Les Morts from Haiti, have naturally a more complex relationship with their own supposed primitivism, and its traditional expression through magical religions such as Santería and Voodoo. Magical practices and, more importantly, the images derived from them, appeal less to artists in the Caribbean that to artists in Europe, because they are not foreign or exotic to them. And simultaneously, these images have more appeal because they have been historically denigrated, ridiculed, and oppressed by the imperialist or occupying Europeans and Americans. Wifredo Lam drew on the iconography of religious objects, objects that were used on the continent from which he partially originated but which he nevertheless did not encounter until he came to Spain, as a springboard for his own plastic genesis. By situating the fetish of Africa within the jungle of Haiti he brought the latter to harsh and startling life. And Will Alexander used Voodoo as an imaginative weapon, and a defining tool.

The faddish popularity of African art among the avant-garde in Paris during the 1920s and 30s presented painters and sculptures looking for a way out of reality with art that, while anonymous, was constructed in a “new” style that was much admired. African artists had been sculpting masks as early as Paleolithic times, continuing to do so through the kingdoms of the Dogon, the Baul, and the Basongye (Sims 19); the masks were typically used as stand-ins for gods or the spirits of ancestors. These artists sculpted in a schematic style whereby the components of a face or body were reduced to bold and simple shapes, a creative imagining in that appealed to the Spanish Pablo Picasso because it was simultaneously conceptual in its execution, yet magical in its function (Klawans 80). His imitation and broadening of this style has been termed Cubism.

By the 1920s, ancient African art was popular in Paris, and was more or less a universal heritage to be drawn on by anybody in the avant-garde. Wifredo Lam initially absorbed this style from the works of Picasso, and not directly from his own heritage. While his priestess godmother Mantonica Wilson had trained Lam in the practice of Santería, a religion strongly derived from African animism, he did not actually view African religious objects, or Picasso’s extension of their style, until he arrived in Europe. Both were crucial influences to his painting, which until the mid 1930s had displayed a “sturdy realistic style” (Sims 18), in the context of sympathetic portraits of peasants, or countryside views. But Picasso’s cubism is analytical, sometimes even mathematical, painfully deconstructing a view into its every identifying plane and angle. In contrast, Lam painted people who resembled masks in order to eliminate “all traces of whatever would dissolve the humanity of a face in the fortuitous expression of individuality” (Leenhardt 13). Lam’s figures wear, or are themselves, masks, sometimes inscrutable and sometimes even featureless, as in 1939’s “Mother and Son” (Fouchet 41). And even when their faces are visibly angry or disturbed, they still resemble the fragmented figure of an exquisite corpse, assembled of stock parts, an eye tacked on here and a tongue there, as in “The Disaster” of the same year (42). In this way, as universal representations, the figures are icons. Alternatively, horse-headed, studded with feathers or holding fierce skulls, they are idols.

Returning from Europe in the 1940s, with the technique of Cubism at his command, Lam was angered by the tourist friendly dilution of Cuban culture that he observed. He responded by painting “hallucinating figures” whose power to surprise was grounded in local myth and totemism (Richards 91-92). In his 1944 painting “The Jungle” (Fouchet 51), Lam portrays at least four figures resembling the bamboo stalks they stand between. They are architectural columns, they are trees, rooted and straight, but narrow, so that any hostile notion could knock them all over. They could be gods, their faint smiles inscrutable and all knowing. But at the same time, their hanging round buttocks, breasts, and testicle chins reveal a sensual humanity, if not an actual humanness. This is no ceremony staged for curious and clueless tourists, it is Lam’s personal reverie and vision, the moment when the spirits inherent in his physical environment step forward for an instant to taunt or comfort or observe him. Not one is an individual, indeed in some places it is hard to tell where one begins and another ends. Rather the entire group is a collective phenomenon, their appearance a sort of miracle, and that is what the painter documents.

The ancient African faces that peer out of the Cuban jungle in Lam’s painting are universal and old, they express a negritude whereby historical suffering has fashioned a bond between Africans worldwide, and whereby ancient African gods live secretly in an island far away from Africa. As animated masks they are magical, and they intend no obvious hostility. However, in the decade following the painting of “The Jungle”, the dual rhetoric of magic and negritude was used by the Haitian dictator François “Papa Doc” Duvaliér with grossly malicious intent, to consolidate his own power and wealth and to plunder his country and murder his subjects.

In the period preceding and coinciding Papa Doc’s reign, the interaction between Voodoo and Christianity in Haiti was based primarily on nationalist conceptions of local heritage vs. foreign Blanc intrusion. In the two decades before he rose to power, U.S. occupation was associated with harsh “anti-superstition campaigns” (Ferguson 31); persecution of Voodoo practitioners was carried out vehemently throughout Haiti’s colonial occupation as well (Diederich & Burt 361). A major influence on Duvaliér was one of his lycée teachers, the ethnologist Jean Price-Mars (Ferguson 33), who was eventually awarded a pension for life by the president for life (Shannon xv). Price-Mars argued in his book So Spoke the Uncle that Voodoo is a religion, not a simple fetishism, and that as a synthesis of animism and Catholicism it is a valid achievement and integral to Haitian culture. This valuation of Voodoo rested less on its component magic than on its identity politics and its status as a point of pride: “Tales and Legends! Does there exist a people who have yielded a richer harvest than ours?” (Price-Mars 14).

Papa Doc fostered Voodoo during his reign as a response to that religion’s long repression, as an expression of a negritude in line with his earliest writings. The journal Les Griots, which he had founded with Louis Diaquoi and Lorimer Denis, espoused a return to African cultural roots (Shannon xiv). It was in accord with that aim that in 1944 Duvaliér co-authored a book-length study entitled The Gradual Evolution of Voudou, establishing his reputation for expertise in the subject (Diederich & Burt 355). Once in power, Papa Doc relied on Voodoo houngans (priests) as informants (Ferguson 52), and hired a bokor (sorcerer) to head the national militia. But this preference was one of nationalism and more than of faith, and Papa Doc ultimately tolerated Catholicism, when he could use it to serve his ends. In 1966, years after expelling all Catholic priests from the country, Papa Doc negotiated with the Vatican and obtained the crucial concession that forthwith, all the Catholic clergy in Haiti would be indigenous. That is, in religious matters what was important was that Haitians be led by Haitians, or rather, Haitians be led by Haitians hand picked by Duvaliér or his administration.

More conspicuously, in office, Papa Doc publicly proclaimed his own adherence to Voodoo (Diederich & Burt 358) and practiced rituals such as studying goat entrails (355) and conferring with the preserved head of the murdered rival Blucher Philogènes (357). While these activities in themselves might have been typical for a Voodoo practitioner, Papa Doc went qualitatively further, using the imagery of that religion in conjunction with the paternalism classically inherent in his office to cultivate an air of “supernatural messianism” around himself (Ferguson 49). Propaganda in the form of public stenciling also proclaimed his god-hood (358), and the Catéchisme de la Révolution taught that the national heroes Dessalines, L'Overture, Christophe, Pétion, and Estimé were unified into the person of François Duvaliér (Ferguson 49). When Papa Doc died, his eulogy concluded, “This man was the Messiah!” (57).

In particular, Papa Doc associated himself with the loa (god) Baron Samedi, the spirit of death who also holds the power to save.
…he is able to enswathe himself in an air of virtual preternaturalism. Dressed in his favorite color, black, his smooth, round face assumes a special sheen. He moves hyperslowy, speaks in a whisper. His eye lids droop. Wearing a slightly bemused, unshakable half-smile, he does nothing for disconcertingly long periods of time… The man appears as calm as death. (Diederich & Burt 354)
This visual technique was useful for influencing Haiti’s largely illiterate population.

Published a decade after the ouster of the last Duvaliér, Jean-Claude “Baby Doc”, Will Alexander’s long poem “Haiti”, serves the immediate purpose of “simple revenge” against the murderous Papa Doc and his first lady (Alexander 105). It recounts the resurrection of François and Simone Duvaliér, whose souls are held captive in a govi (clay jar; 121), and are tortured by being forced to unceasingly copulate in filth and disease (75). But Alexander achieves an equally important aim by empowering his poem’s speakers, Les Morts, the faceless victims of Duvaliér’s oppression, and now his accusers, to make him the alien, and affirm their own right to Africa and to Voodoo. While the dictator and his wife are the “gargoyle couple” (77), a phrase recalling the cold cathedrals of foreign colonialist France, Les Morts are “the Africa of Songhai and Mali” (72). They also reject Duvaliér’s historical claims to have embodied Haiti’s supposedly ethnically superior Black majority. They go so far as to deny the entire Black/Mulatto duality- ridiculous in any case, considering that a Mulatto is someone who has Black ancestors- to unify the prototypical Haitian into the proud joint person of
one mulatto…
our brother
who was hanged in the streets
despite the depth of his marvelous Nubian rigour (82)
The obvious necessity for this redefinition and widening of negritude is made painfully clear by the fact that historical Duvaliérism was no noble world of unified Black pride, but a petty and tragic scheme of “starvation under gemstone” (73).

Les Morts insist that Duvaliér plundered an unsuspecting, “motionless” (Alexander 96) and “windless” (114) Voodoo, so as to appropriate its imagery. They now retrieve Voodoo from him and renew their own claim to it; they even take back Baron Samedi (102), whose sinister demeanor Papa Doc had consciously impersonated (Ferguson 52). This guardian of the underworld ironically cooperates with the grave robbing Morts, as they resurrect the Duvaliérs in order to punish them. Les Morts deliberately include both “old Dahomean breeding/ with cosmic Petro scowling” (Alexander 131) in their new Voodoo lexicon. Papa Doc had seized on Voodoo simply because it was African, or at least because it was emphatically not European. But now from beyond death his former subjects recognize in their original religion something more, the genuine startling fragility and fierceness of the
dauntless alabaster motives
in the beauty of Dahomean translucence
as Haitian lunar suns transpire
in lingering visual ignatics (128)
Ultimately, by stripping Papa Doc of the hifalutin causes whose rhetoric and symbolism he hid behind, Les Morts can overcome their initial paradoxical relationship with the gargoyle couple. The witnesses, previously victims, begin the poem in the heady and powerful position of accusers, even carrion vultures (78). And because all of the parties involved are dead anyway their assaults initially resemble those of “leech against leech” (88). But re-appropriating their own history allows the accusers enough self-definition to accuse Duvaliér from outside of his own paradigm. The poem serves as a “symbolic verbal act”, in which Les Morts perform “corrective magic and therapeutic ritual” on themselves (Mullen 418). In this way they can leave François and Simone to their eternal, painful coupling (131), and, as is implied by their ultimate silence and the poem’s end, achieve at least a corpse’s rest.

In his brief essay “Calling the Magicians”, Aimé Césaire, the founder of negritude, addresses the potential for greatness in the Caribbean, and concludes that it lies in a complete acceptance of local myths as the instruments of wonder and artistic achievement. Because poetry “is a devotion to abandoned or exiled or obliterated myth” (120), residents of the Caribbean are in a unique poetic position, having undergone exile from the continent and population base that formed the wellspring of their mythology. He calls upon the few remaining magicians to “give us back our power of wonderment”. The very notion that wonderment could be power is a foreign one to any enlightened search for accuracy, whereby factual knowledge is power, and wonderment, akin to fear, is disempowering. But the “new barbarism” (121) in which such a wonderment would be nurtured doesn’t need to be bogged down in reality. It has regained access to “the meaning of the symbol” and a liberating “attitude towards the object”, in order to bridge the distance between sad modernity and “the sun temple…the mask… the African man.” Césaire doesn’t speak of these magical symbols as nationalist, or as the exclusive intellectual property of the civilizations in which they originated. Rather they are tools that any successful civilization must use to achieve a new creativity and rage.

Works cited:
  • Alexander, Will. Asia & Haiti. Los Angeles: Sun & Moon Press, 1995.
  • Breton, André. Manifestoes of Surrealism. Trans. Richard Seaver and Helen R. Lane. Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 1972.
  • Césaire, Aimé. “Calling the Magician: A Few Words for a Caribbean Civilization.” Refusal of the Shadow: Surrealism and the Caribbean. Trans. Michael Richardson and Krsysztof Fijalkowski. London: Verso, 1996.
  • de Chirico, Giorgio. “Mystery and Creation.” London Bulletin. No. 6 (Oct 1938), p. 14
  • Diederich, Bernard and Al Burt. Papa Doc: Haiti and its Dictator. London: The Bodley Head Ltd., 1969
  • Ferguson, James. Papa Doc, Baby Doc. New York: Basil Blackwell Inc., 1987.
  • Fouchet, Max-Pol. Wifredo Lam. New York: Rizzoli International Publications, Inc., 1976.
  • Klawans, Stuart. “'I Was a Weird Example of Art’: My Amputations as Cubist Confession.” African American Review. No. 28 (Winter 1994), pp. 77-87.
  • Leenhardt, Jacques. “Introduction.” Wifredo Lam and his Contemporaries, 1938-1952. Ed. Maria R. Balderrama. New York: The Studio Museum in Harlem, 1993.
  • Mullen, Harryette. “A Collective Force of Burning Ink’: Will Alexander’s Asia & Haiti.” Callaloo. Vol. 22 No. 2 (1999), pp. 417-426.
  • Price-Mars, Jean. So Spoke the Uncle. Trans. Shannon W. Magdaline. Washington, D.C.: Three Continents Press, 1983.
  • Richards, Paulette. “Wifredo Lam: A Sketch.” Callaloo. Vol. 34 No. 1 (1988), pp. 90-92.
  • Shannon, Magdaline W. “Jean Price-Mars.” So Spoke the Uncle. Washington, D.C.: Three Continents Press, 1983.
  • Sims, Lowery Stokes. “Wifredo Lam: From Spain Back to Cuba.” Wifredo Lam and his Contemporaries, 1938-1952. Ed. Maria R. Balderrama. New York: The Studio Museum in Harlem, 1993.

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