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  • Introduction:Dada, Surrealism, and Colonialism
  • Martine Antle (bio) and Katharine Conley (bio)

Starting in 1925 with the pamphlet circulated in support of the rebels of the Rif Valley fighting in Morocco for independence from France, the surrealists actively adopted an anti-colonialist, anti-imperialist stance. Led by André Breton, they followed up this pamphlet with a small exhibition in 1931, “The Truth about the Colonies,” along with another pamphlet, “First Report on the Colonial Exhibition,” intended to refute the political assumptions of the major “Colonial Exhibition” showing in Paris at the time. While their political energies for the rest of the 1930s became concentrated on anti-fascism followed by self-exile or active resistance during World War Two, by the end of the war in 1946 they published a new anti-colonialist pamphlet with the title, “Liberty is a Vietnamese noun.” By 1950, in a talk given to a group of graduating ethnographers, the occasional surrealist Michel Leiris called on these young representatives of the state to defend the colonized people they would likely be studying against the force of the French Empire they purportedly would be representing. He told them: “ethnography appears to be closely linked to the colonial fact, whether ethnographers desire it to be so, or not. For the most part, it is in colonial or semi-colonial territories dependent upon their country of origin that they work.” Later on, he adds, “it is certain that we cannot neglect the fact that these societies . . . have been subjugated to colonial regimes and that they have, as a result, . . . undergone certain social disruptions. . . . . We cannot, therefore, on a human level, hold ourselves apart from the colonial administration.”1 Leiris concludes by encouraging the young ethnographers to practice an ethnography “detatched from a colonialist mindset” in order to prepare the way for emancipation and to accept the inevitability of the “essentially temporary” state of colonialism and thus to work on the side of colonialism towards its undoing.2

Fourteen years later in 1960, Breton, Leiris, and other surrealists signed the “Manifesto of the 121” in support of the people of Algeria who had taken up arms against the French government in their desire to free themselves from colonization. While these political positions were undoubtedly sincere and even inspiring to those outside of France such [End Page 1] as Aimé Césaire in Martinique and Rémy Bélance in Haïti, with whom Breton met in the 1940s, in many ways they were contradicted by of the surrealists’ enthusiasm for ceremonial objects that French colonialism and a new market for non-Western objects in the Americas made available to them, which they collected and admired as art from a perspective that could be understood today as intellectually colonializing.

Even if surrealism did not situate colonialism at the center of its assertions in the first two “Manifestoes of Surrealism,” the numerous pamphlets they circulated throughout most of the twentieth century provide the best testimony of their anti-colonial mindset and remain today the most enduring testimony of this anti-colonialist mindset. Overall, the surrealists remained caught between their Marxist affiliations and the construction of a mythic Africa, the Caribbean, Oceania, and the Americas. To some extent, they were more concerned with the exploration of exoticism than in actual research on the specificity of various colonial contexts. For despite their attraction to non-European cultures and their numerous journeys to Mexico, Egypt, Martinique, and Vietnam, for the surrealists, the appeal of far-off lands pertains more to myth than to a true knowledge of unfamiliar cultures founded upon a dialogue. Recent research on surrealism shows that the most fertile exchanges and encounters between European surrealists and fellow artists abroad took place not in France at the movement’s geographic center, but at its edges.

Surrealists other than Breton, such as Leonora Carrington, succeeded in establishing real interaction with non-European cultures. Unlike Breton, whose fabled trip to Mexico in 1938 resulted principally in his discovering confirmation of his own artistic principles, Carrington, who settled in Mexico City after World War Two, traveled extensively in her adopted country. For example, her trip to the Chiapas region deepened her knowledge of Mayan culture...


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