The European art movement called Surrealism began when a group of poets and artists felt driven to escape rational, logical thought. Surrealists were interested in whatever springs “from unexplored realms of the mind … themes supplied by the unconscious, chance, madness, dream, hallucination, delirium, or humour.”
They wanted to bypass the kinds of mental processes that are under the control of our thinking, conscious minds. But how could they achieve this? One way was to juxtapose things that jarred, to create bizarre or shocking combinations of things, that up-ended everyday “normality” and overturned expectations, to shock people out of their complacency.
Another way was to allow for free association – allowing one thing to unconsciously suggest or remind them of another. For this reason, chance would be allowed to play a part in determining the image – surrealist poems, for example, were created from the chance combination of words cut out of a newspaper and randomly tossed together. Corps exquisite was a game that was also a way of creating “chance figures”: each artist would draw one part of a figure, conceal the drawn part, and pass it to another artist to continue by drawing another part of the figure…and so on. The Surrealists were astounded by the powerful results of this activity, which reinforced their belief in “automatism”, the idea that works of art could be produced as expressions of the subconscious.
Surrealism flourished mainly in Europe, during the period between the world wars. It had an influence, directly or indirectly, on a number of artists in South Africa. However there was a somewhat different impulse behind the surrealist thread in South African art. In South Africa, there was no single surrealist “movement” as such, as there was in Europe. The South African artists that worked in this manner were all very different from one another: their ideas, their starting points and the works themselves vary enormously. We will look at a few of these artists in this chapter.
“Surrealism” in South Africa: a reality without reason?
For many artists and poets who lived in South Africa under apartheid, the realities of that time felt like an absence of reason: our reality seemed to be a kind of absurdity. This was expressed in different ways. For some, the only way of confronting the politics at the time, and of conveying what they saw as the absurdity of the country, was to create an art language of irrationality or “madness”.
The political reality, they believed, was in itself surreal and could only be expressed through images of surreality. For others, surrealism offered a way of seeing into a different, new world – an alternative to the (almost intolerable) real world. So for them, the surreal vision was a way to seek a different reality.
The absurdity of our society did not suddenly cease when apartheid ended. Some artists have continued to convey the way that dark period still continues to inform our reality today.
Let’s look at some of these artists’ ideas and images.
Black Consciousness artists: A new reality
The work of Black Consciousness artists in South Africa embodied a distinct form of surrealism. They created dream-like, free-associative imagery – imagery that was not overtly political, but poetic and suggestive. They were determined to “create a new reality, more illuminating, and more sublime, than the actual lived-experience under apartheid”.