Co-edited by Martine Antle and Katharine Conley. South Central Review (published by John Hopkins Press) Volume 32, Number 1, Spring 2015
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 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 positions 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.