The Universal Voice of Surrealism

by Brenda Melgoza Ciardiello June 23, 2024
Installation view of a mixed media painting against a white wall

Che Lovelace, “Large Vision of the Birds,” 2023, acrylic and dry pigment on board.

Suzanne Césaire is not a household name here. Despite my pointed interest in Surrealism, I wasn’t familiar with her until I saw the current special exhibition at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth. Césaire’s 1943 essay, “le Surréalisme et Nous,” was an inspiration to many of the great minds of the 20th Century. A meditation on Afro-Caribbean identity, Surrealism as rebellion, and the power of (a feminine) nature and landscape, it is no surprise that curator María Elena Ortiz chose the essay’s title as her show’s namesake. In researching the show, Césaire’s identity as a Black female artist, scholar, and writer from the Caribbean, made her prescient, feminist writings a clear guiding light for Ortiz. The influence of Césaire’s emphasis on the reclamation of the culturally plural and multi-national makeup of the Caribbean can be seen throughout Ortiz’s groundbreaking exhibition on Afro-Diasporic influence and perspectives in Surrealist art. 

Detail of a mixed media painting of hummingbirds

Detail: Che Lovelace, “Large Vision of the Birds,” 2023, acrylic and dry pigment on board

“[Sometimes] we forget that we are all a part of the same story,” remarked Ortiz at the press preview in March, at which several of the artists represented in the show were present. Their attendance and obvious pride at being included in such a diverse and wide-ranging roster was another fitting homage to Césaire who, in her essay (one of only seven written by her for the magazine Tropique before her premature death) called for the use of the “Caribbean expression of Surrealism…[to] narrow the gap between the antinomies of Black and White, European and African, Civilized and Savage, harvested in the colonized mind.”(1) Indeed, the exhibition is a timely call for unity, dialogue, and common ground both on the centennial anniversary of Surrealism and in a political moment defined by polarization often associated with extremism and identity politics. Ortiz uses the echo of Césaire’s voice, that of a Black Martinican feminist artist living under colonial rule during the World Wars, to call us together into a conversation about how what makes us unique also simultaneously reveals our common ground. 

Photo of an artist speaking about their work

Artist Che Lovelace, from Trinidad & Tobago, speaks in front of his piece created for the exhibition, “Large Vision of the Birds,” 2023, acrylic and dry pigment on board

Rather than relegating Caribbean Surrealism to an isolated niche genre, Ortiz’s curation uses the power of the work’s regional specificity to broaden the reach of the avant-garde movement at large. The work, representing over 60 artists from at least 7 countries, most with ties to numerous diasporic communities, shifts, re-focuses, and more accurately defines global Surrealism by bringing historical and contemporary nuance into the spotlight. Aptly timed to open during the centennial anniversary of Surrealism, the exhibition contextualizes Surrealism’s European origins with nods to French poet André Breton’s 1924 “Surrealist Manifesto,” but establishes him as a great supporter of Latin American and Caribbean Surrealism while maintaining a clear focus on Caribbean and Afro-diasporic perspectives. Organized thematically rather than chronologically, the viewer rides an interdisciplinary current from the 1940s to the present through three themes: To Dare, Invisibility, and Super/Reality

Photo of two artists speaking on their work in a gallery with blue walls

Twin brothers Elliot and Erick Jiménez speak in their installation “Blue Chapel (Rejection, Acceptance, Advocacy, Interdependence),” a set of 4 archival photo prints on canvas in artist’s custom frames

We are deftly guided on a journey through time and place, visual art and literature; a journey that powerfully acknowledges what makes the Caribbean and African diasporic perspective so rich: a legacy that began with African traditions and rituals that crossed the Atlantic and, over time and through the people and land, have been transformed into a very specific cultural aesthetic used to voice the Black experience and imagine new futures. The result is a show that enriches a genre that is still too often only associated with Eurocentric, male perspectives.

Photo of a large scale painting of figures surrounded by a snake

Naudline Pierre, “Chrysalis at the Altar of Change,” 2022, oil, enamel, and oil stick on canvas

Detail of a painting of a woman in a landscape

Salnave Philippe-Auguste, “Mujer Mariposa (Butterfly Girl),” 1976

Encompassing most of the 2nd floor of the museum, Surrealism and Us covers a lot of ground, both literally and metaphorically. In the first gallery, a historical groundwork is laid with Suzanne Césaire’s essay encased and on display with work by her husband, artist and poet Aimé Césaire, acclaimed Afro-Cuban artist Wifredo Lam, and Haitian artist Salnave Philippe-Auguste nearby, among many others. 

Installation view of a Kara Walker piece with painting and antique projector

Kara Walker, “Darkytown Rebellion,” 2001, cut paper, wall projection, painting

installation image of an antique classroom projector

The overhead projector as part of Kara Walker’s “Darkytown Rebellion” installation, paired with Toni Morrison’s book of poetry, “Five Poems”

Viewers will encounter painting, sculpture, photography, collage, installation, and literature throughout and it is almost difficult to select exactly what work to spend time with when the likes of Ana Mendieta, Simon Leigh, and Wangechi Mutu are at every turn. Among the most powerful examples of the interdisciplinary reach, however, is a small room at the center of the exhibition devoted to a multi-media installation pairing the display of the only known poetry by Toni Morrison, Five Poems, with illustrations and an immersive installation by Kara Walker (the only artist and artwork in the show to have been shown previously at the Modern). An old-school overhead projector, a poetic reminder that the past is almost always there waiting around the corner, is quietly placed against the wall on the floor, throwing a transparent but wildly colorful abstracted landscape across two large walls on which Walker’s signature black silhouettes create a dramatic scene evoking disturbing yet beautifully exuberant scenes of violence. Casting black silhouettes on the installation ourselves, we are left lingering amidst the verbal and physical legacies of slavery on the contemporary Black psyche. 

Detail of the legs and hamstrings of a figure in a painting

Detail: Firelei Báez, “Tambourine (or the embedded archive),” 2024, oil, acrylic, and archival print on canvas

Installation view of a painting of a human figure with birds wings on their head

Firelei Báez’s piece “Tambourine (or the embedded archive)” was created for the exhibition after years of conversation with curator María Elena Ortiz.

Mixed media painting of a crouching human figure with birds wings on their head

Firelei Báez, “Tambourine (or the embedded archive),” 2024, oil, acrylic, and archival print on canvas

Other highlights include several contemporary pieces, some made especially for the show. One of the most striking is a large-scale painting by Dominican-born artist Firelei Báez called Tambourine (or the embedded archive). An impossibly vibrant, larger-than-life figure dominates a map with giant legs and rainbow wings for a head. Created specifically for the show, and after years of conversations with Ortiz, the work serves as a grounding and launching point for the imagination on multiple planes: geographic, gendered, and cultural. Che Lovelace’s piece, Large Vision of the Birds, was also created while in dialogue with Ortiz. He engages the art historical tradition of landscape but focuses on uniquely Caribbean scenes and symbols that blend abstraction and representation to conjure sensations of beauty, movement, and song unique to his native Trinidad and Tobago. Lastly, the Blue Chapel (Rejection, Acceptance, Advocacy, Interdependence) is a 4-piece photographic installation by twin-brother team Elliot and Erick Jiménez. The brothers have created an atmosphere that is equal parts contemporary gallery and holy altar: floor-to-ceiling blue walls with two pairs of gender-and-genre-defying canvas prints of ethereal black and white figures which they call “shadow deities” who seem to camouflage into their surroundings except for their piercingly white eyes. Existing in what the artists call a “shadow realm,” the figures reference Afro deities from Cuban folklore but also exemplify the ability to exist between two worlds – an experience both personal and unique to twins but also to bicultural people and culturally plural places such as the Caribbean. 

Installation of two rows of ten mixed media collages of faces

Wangechi Mutu, “Histology of the Different Classes of Uterine Tumors,” 2006, digital prints and mixed media collage (individually collaged and print elements and glitter)

detail of a mixed media collage of a face

Detail: Wangechi Mutu, “Histology of the Different Classes of Uterine Tumors,” 2006, digital prints and mixed media collage (individually collaged and print elements and glitter)

Surrealism and Us successfully sheds light on the seminal influences of African and Afro-Caribbean diasporic realities, spirituality, and aesthetics on Surrealism as a whole; yet, the more remarkable achievement of the exhibition is the broadening and redefining of the entire movement itself. The dynamic and engaging work of over 60 Afro-Caribbean and Black artists demands a reckoning with Surrealism’s aging parameters. While the show has been described as focusing on how Caribbean and Black artists “interpreted a Modern movement,” I believe Ortiz is reminding us that engagement with fantasy and the uncanny as a form of identity-making/guarding and rebellion within oppressed/colonized populations is a universal reality that predates Breton, or European influence in the Caribbean. The work’s agency asserts that Surrealism is, and has always been, a universal artistic phenomenon, one that is a direct and unique manifestation of the widespread and universal human longing for freedom, visibility, and accurate representation. 


1. Bernal, M. C. (Fall 2023). A Voice for Surrealism: Suzanne Césaire and the Tropiques Group by International Journal of Surrealism, 1(1), 40–57. 


“Surrealism and Us: Caribbean and African Diasporic Artists Since 1940,” is on view at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth through July 28, 2024. 

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