Surrealism and the Caribbean

The Crossroads of Civilizations

Alisa and André Breton at the Port-au-Prince airfield in December 1945. Paul Laraque (left of the Bretons), Mme. W. Lam, Dr. Pierre Mabille, le peintre Wilfredo Lam. On the right: René Bélance, Mme. Mabille, Regnor Bernard, Edris St. Armand and M. de Peillon, Ministre de France (photo from the Incomplete Works).

Alisa and André Breton at the Port-au-Prince airfield in December 1945. Paul Laraque (left of the Bretons), Mme. W. Lam, Dr. Pierre Mabille, le peintre Wilfredo Lam. On the right: René Bélance, Mme. Mabille, Regnor Bernard, Edris St. Armand and M. de Peillon, Ministre de France (photo from the Incomplete Works).

As Jacques-Stephen Alexis articulated in Paris, 1956 at the first International Conference of Black Writers and Artists, the Caribbean has always been a crossroads of civilizations, even before its multifarious encounters with Europe after Columbus. Published in the quarterly magazine Présence Africaine in the same year, Alexis’ piece “Du Réalisme Merveilleux des Haïtiens” covered a wide range of topics concerning Haiti, its history, politics, society, and culture, with the aim of bringing more international attention to Caribbean social realism and artistic expression. Through this discourse, he maintains that “primitive cultures” (as with Haitian art or “cousin” African art) possess a complex, visionary consciousness that profoundly engages the real world, inextricably bound to myth, symbolism, and the sacred.

While many are aware of the history of slavery and colonialism, until recently, relatively little recognition has been accorded to the study of post-colonial issues and the artistic expressionism stemming from it. In the case of the Antilles, it is crucial to understand how the merging of worlds led to a simultaneously collective and individualized consciousness of reality, which matured in the context of the surreal.

As Alexis discusses, the pre-Columbian Taìno peoples of the Caribbean integrated over a long period of time, gradually sharing and developing agricultural techniques, cultural traditions of art, music and dance, folklore, and religious beliefs. With the arrival of the French and the Spanish, an incredible diversity of African peoples were imported under slavery and exploited in the sugar cane fields to cultivate the major cash-crop of the region. The enslaved peoples of the islands and the imported African slaves reproduced an artificial version of the métissage that had occurred naturally before European interference: once again the Caribbean became a crossroads of cultural and linguistic exchange. With the “Code Noir,” the French empire established elaborate and strict rules to counterbalance the overwhelming ratio of slave populations to European colonists. Eventually this lead to increasingly violent conflicts, which lacked leadership until the Vaudou priest François Mackandal united a full resistance, whose legacy lived on long after being burnt at the stake, eventually culminating in the only salve rebellion to have succeeded in establishing independence – the Haitian Revolution (1791−1804) – merely two years after the inspirational French Revolution.

While this seemed like an immense victory, the nascent “Black Republic” had its fair share of problems internally in addition to being denied recognition by any other nation for many decades. Isolated and alienated, Haiti struggled to consolidate power and revitalize its agricultural economy. By 1825, France had returned with a large fleet to seize the island once again, forcing the president at the time to pay a controversial indemnity of 150 million francs (later 90 million francs) in exchange for diplomatic recognition that finally came nearly a decade after signing the treaty. In the decades to come, Haitian politics and government remained incredibly turbulent during their independence. The two-caste system with a francophone Elite and a Creole peasantry had resounding effects across Haitian history and further impregnated the people’s consciousness with ideas of slavery, inferiority, and exploitation. This continued into the US occupation of Haiti lasting from 1915 until 1934. A major identity crisis reemerged among a French-educated generation of writers and artists, who equipped themselves with the means to confront the socio-cultural problems arising from the various forms of oppression by slavery, colonization, and occupation, engrained in the collective memory of these cultures.

Post-Negritude writers in Martinique and Haiti looked to Surrealism as a philosophical and psychological platform for reflecting on cultural identity, consciousness, and issues arising from post-colonialism in the Antilles. After a single edition of a publication called Légitime Défense, named after a short book by André Breton, the French state shut it down and more or less indirectly punished the Martiniquan students who took part in it. Their intentions were infused with Marxist dialectical materialism and surrealist ideas, which Breton himself is cited as having encouraged this group to engage with political and aesthetic ideas. While the publication and the group may seem inconsequential, it was the first time that colonial subjects used the language and medium of the oppressors to “talk back.” Almost contemporary to the Surrealists’ outrage at the 1931 Colonial Exhibition in Paris, the resounding message of Légitime Défense would extend far and wide.

The above history served as the fecundation of the soil where surrealism would plant its seeds in the 1930s and ‘40s. Surrealism offered a method for reconsidering cultural identity. While Surrealism developed in post-WWI Europe, an unexpected chain of encounters occurred in the 1940s between Surrealists escaping a second European war and Caribbean writers, whose interactions further developed a long-running inquiry into the issue of alterity and cultural identity in the Caribbean, once again transformed into a crossroads of consciousness and poetry.  Writers from the Caribbean were interested in Surrealism from Europe because of its potential for providing a medium for articulating and reflecting on black consciousness – not necessarily for anything else. In the same way, European surrealists were interested in Haitian Vaudou because they saw in it confirmation of their own ideas on the dream, trance states, and automatism.

Nevertheless, this exchange was very rich for literary and artistic expression. Pierre Mabille was a doctor at the main hospital in Port-au-Prince, Haiti in 1940. Mabille’s pursuits in psychoanalysis and the hermetic sciences greatly influenced his involvement in and contribution to the Surrealist movement, providing it from early on with a strong undercurrent of sociology and anthropology. One of his legacies that survives in Haiti today is a multidisciplinary review, Conjonctions, which he established in 1946 concerning various topics within Haitian culture. Before being appointed as the French cultural attaché, he helped found the Haitian Bureau d’Ethnologie, seeking to call attention to the dynamic intellectual value of Haitian folkloric and Vaudou traditions. The Catholic Church, in league with the state, pushed back with anti-Vaudou laws enforced against practitioners. Ironically, this anti-Vaudou position of the Church and state ended up legitimizing evidence of the complexity of their beliefs and practices and sparked a further interest from a more international community.

In 1945, Mabille invited surrealist André Breton to Haiti to give a series of lectures that would inspire a generation of writers, poets, and artists. On the very night of his arrival, Breton’s own definition of surrealism was quoted back to him by heart from the renegade poet Magloire St. Aude. This was the first of many encounters that formed a surrealist crossroads that would have far-reaching implications for the writers and artists of the Caribbean and the political scene with which they were engaged. A mutual self-recognition occurred during Breton’s time spent in the Caribbean, where he articulated what had only implicitly been represented before his arrival. Breton’s self-exile underlined surrealism’s sensitivity to the issues of otherness, displacement, and inter-cultural relations. The eventual fall of the Haitian government, who attended his infamous talk at the Rex Theater, is increasingly attributed to Breton’s catalytic speeches.

Years later, J.S. Alexis argued that because of an overly constructed social conscious and adherence to modernization, people on a whole have only served to alienate themselves from what “primitive thought” engages in everyday life: authentic and culturally relevant forms of expression. The separation of the sacred and the mundane is what constricts the expansive and transcendent ideas alluded to in surrealist thinking. Alexis’s term le réalisme merveilleux, commonly understood as magic realism (the same term used by Alejo Carpentier), described the way that Haitian writers and artists see the world around them and experience social reality, the world, and modern life. Haitian consciousness, largely influenced by local tradition and Vaudou, does not differentiate the sacred from the quotidian. Some things can be simple, but as Mabille strived to show, Vaudou religion and Haitian thought recognize their own concepts that deny that same simplicity in the way that it readily synthesizes diversity, naturally translates the marvelous into a vision of reality, and revels in notions that defy duality through multiple-aspect deities, sympathetic magic and the paradox of the undead.

These ideas would find their home in the works of writers such as Magloire St. Aude and René Dépestre in their respective works featuring zombies: Veillée (1956) and Hadriana dans tous mes rêves (1988). Over time, zombies become a metaphor for Hegelian slave dialectic that is so prominent in Surrealism and it embodies a paradox we now so commonly recognize as the undead: soulless, enslaved beings with no right to live on their own. At the level of abstraction, the implied zombification of mankind can be seen in popular media today, as we are unable to die (that is, be transformed), so we continue in a condemned state of not being able to live.[1] In 1938, Mabille published Egrégores ou la vie des civilisations in response to major philosophical influences on Surealist ideas on the individual and human civilization: “Life is a continuum in which all things interrelate. Death as finality is denied because everything is capable of transformation, everything exists in a state of latent potentiality, capable of being realized or activated by desire.” [2]

While many of these writers remain untranslated, the growing recognition of Caribbean authors over the years has rendered some of their works available in English. Jacques-Stephen Alexis’ first book is available under the English title General Sun, My Brother (originally published in French, 1955) as well as some of his short stories from his collection Romancéro aux étoiles. The novel portrays the troubled life story of a laborer and his wife living in the slums of Port-au-Prince and working in the cane fields. Alexis’ marvelous realism depicts how the supernatural was a part of enslaved peoples’ everyday experience of social reality, while his short stories showcase the orality of Haitian storytelling, infused with references to Creole culture, Vaudou, and folklore.

In 2012, England’s Nottingham Contemporary presented an extensive exhibit on Haitian art named after the deity of the crossroads, Kafou: Haiti, Art and Vodou. The publication coming out of the exhibit contains a beautiful collection, spanning more than seventy years of popular art and documenting the influence of the Vaudou religion on the visionary imaginations and ingenuity of some of Haiti’s most significant artists. The illustrated publication is accompanied by a combination of recent and republished texts in English from a wide array of artists and writers. In the (roughly translated) words of J.S. Alexis, “Haitian art is indeed a presentation of the real followed by a procession of the weird, of fantasies and waking dreams, of mysteries and the marvelous…”

Included in that anthology is an extract from Michael Richardson’s book Refusal of the Shadow: Surrealism and the Caribbean, which compiles a comprehensive history of the Caribbean, the development of Surrealism, and explores a number of writers, philosophers and intellectuals, many of which were yet to be translated.


Further Reading:

Pierre Mabille

André Breton

Alfred Metraux – Le vaudou haïtien (English translation available)

Caribbean Writers:

Dany LaFerriere

Edouard Glissant

Jacques Stephen Alexis

Aimé Césaire

Michel Leiris

René Depestre

René Ménil

Magloire St.Aude

Jacques Roumain
On the Caribbean and Caribbean Surrealism:

Refusal of the Shadow (by Krzysztof Fijalkowski Michael Richardson)

Kafou: Haiti, Art, and Vodou (Nottingham Contemporary, 2012)

Publications by Jean Michael Dash (Caribbean Scholar and Translator)


Refusal of the Shadow (by Krzysztof Fijalkowski Michael Richardson)

Kafou: Haiti, Art, and Vodou (Nottingham Contemporary, 2012)

Du réalisme merveilleux des Haïtiens” (Jacques-Stephen Alexis in Présence Africaine, 1956)


[1] Refusal of the Shadow, M. Richardson. [2] Quoted in Refusal of the Shadow, Richardson.

Brett Powell Ray is passionate about foreign languages and language acquisition. He is finishing his MA in French Literary Translation at NYU. For his thesis, he is translating a Steampunk novel co-authored by Fabrice Colin and Mathieu Gaborit entitled Confessions d’un automate mangeur d’opium (tentatively Confessions of a Steampunk Opium-Eater). Apart from translating Sci-Fi/Fantasy, Brett is also writing his own series that takes place in a world called Ephemeris. He is currently living in San Francisco.