- Introduction:The No-Theory Chant of Afrosurrealism
my voice walks like a skeleton—Henry Dumas
When a Romare Bearden collage is reprinted in a textbook or posted online, we see lines, shapes, and color simply, but a live viewing alerts us to its layered complexity as an object in real space and time. As such it takes on skin, reality. The more you look at it, the realer it becomes as though taking on flesh, transforming before your eyes in a sur-or heightened-realizing liveness. You realize that you are looking at an object on its own terms—not about it, not through it but at the thing itself. Although the object features fractured subjectivities, severed bodies, and disassembled buildings, Bearden draws nonetheless from our common iconographic scape and many of its characteristic narrative modes, thus his assemblage intrigues before it disturbs. But close analysis and archival research, seeking to revisit or even recreate or transmit the energies of the artist’s creative process, makes what seemed comfortably interpretable strange and new again; close, live analysis defamiliarizes, revealing optical illusions where figures, animated in our perception, switch back and forth between our first and second glances. A much deeper level of detail in Bearden’s cuttings comes into focus. In viewing the collage Village of Yo (1964) live you experience its tactility when you see the seams of magazine clippings and colored, coated papers.1
Similarly, in Bearden’s somewhat less tactile but nonetheless optically illusory screenprint and lithograph work, Sorcerer’s Village II (fig. 1), faces emerge from abstract patterns then recede only to return to consciousness moments later.2 The piece is both conceptual and representational. Eyes, eyes everywhere of all sizes and from different sources. In person, the paper truly comes alive. Juxtapositions jostle. The inanimate is suddenly animated and tumbles back and forth between the two states in troubling, curious [End Page 95] ways. Thus Bearden’s pieces are not Afrosurreal merely because they are fragmented and play on our vision but because they are suspended until enlivened, dynamized by human hands and breathed experience and imagination in ways that leave the viewer tugging between two worlds, two ways of seeing—and add to it the uncanny of this object. How it is an art object but also natural—just paper cut up but paper that looks at you, is aware of you, is changed by how you touch it, by how light falls or doesn’t upon it. The object cannot take too much light and cannot bear to be touched directly. Its slightly faded areas reveal its fragility; it’s alive. On viewing such art objects so intimately you awaken to the hand, yours and the artist’s. In this iteration of surrealism, meditative excitement gets a hold, clears away interpretation and story, leaving only the object in its skin, which is your own.
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The surreal is commonly understood to be, like the above account, dreamlike and a departure from the observable world, in this case into an overly observing one. The term is employed to encompass whatever might fall into an alternate reality that is actually viewed as a nonreality, and discrete boundaries [End Page 96] mark the fantasy sequences apart from the sequences to be taken as what really happened or as truth. But surrealism breaks such borders, crossing often seamlessly between animate and inanimate, conscious and subconscious. Such aesthetics naturally elicit contradictory emotions: disgust and curiosity, horror and intrigue as the scene or the misshapen thing that is mundane and in plain sight becomes full of signs difficult to decipher or overwritten with messages that obscure meaning.
Surrealism is not merely fantastical, whimsical, or playful, however. In the story recounted above, my being made hyperattentive to the object’s graphic surface, its artifice and constructed being, disrupted and interrogated the very space of the classroom, attacking the comfort and safety of well-established looking relations between scholar and subject and between me and something I must have seen...