Although the presidency of Donald Trump is in a certain sense a bizarrely surreal spectacle, the political aims of the actual Surrealists and the nascent nationalist movement that Trump embodies are polar extremes. Nothing highlights this better than Trump’s insulting and ignorant comments concerning ‘shithole countries’ of which he deems the much maligned island nation of Haiti to be a prime example.
Haiti, however, was a source of enduring fascination and inspiration for the Surrealists. As strident anti-colonialists (for Surrealism there never was or could ever be a case for colonialism, it was always an unalloyed evil that debases the colonised and corrupts the coloniser), Surrealists celebrated the Haitian revolution that resulted in the only successful slave revolt in history and the first black republic in the world. This momentous event and the subsequent defeat of invading French, British and Spanish forces by the Haitians expanded the central concept of the French Revolution of ‘Liberté, égalité, fraternité’ to include all men, regardless of colour. Unfortunately Haiti has never been forgiven for this piece of temerity.
Of course bound up with the perception of Haiti is Vodou, the syncretic religion that combines elements of West African spirit worship, Roman Catholicism and possibly traces of native Meso-American religion, and the Surrealists were certainly not immune to its spell. Although not technically a Surrealist, the American Lost Generation writer and occultist W.B Seabrook travelled in the same Parisian avant-garde circles (for the curious Man Ray’s series of photographs entitled The Fantasies of Mr Seabrook are still risque) and his sensational, though mainly sympathetic travelogue The Magic Island from 1929, the book that introduced the word zombie to the English language, was positively reviewed in Georges Bataille Documents magazine by the ethnographer Michel Leiris. Bataille himself would write about Vodou in L’Érotisme (Eroticisms) and Les Larmes d’Éros (The Tears ofEros), as he saw Vodou as the prime modern example of a Dionysian religion.
In 1944 the Martinican poet Aime Cesaire (see Serpent Sun), who credited Surrealism with emancipating his consciousness, spent seven months in Haiti, which at the time was still the only black republic in the Caribbean. This period would inedibly mark Cesaire’s artistic and political thought.
In 1945 Andre Breton and Wilfredo Lam (see Welcome To The Jungle), as guests of fellow Surrealist Pierre Mabille, the French cultural attache, attended a vodou ceremony where they saw the works of Hector Hyppolite (see Desire in a Different Climate), a third generation Vodou houngan. Breton also gave a series of three lectures that linked the Haitian revolution with Surrealism and that galvanised opposition to the current US backed dictator in power, who promptly fled the country when the insurgency gathered force.
One of the first works of magic realism is Alejo Carpentier’s El reino de este mundo (The Kingdom of This World) published in 1949 that details the events of the Haitian revolution and its immediate aftermath.
Finally a brief word on the avant-garde film-maker Maya Deren marvellous study of Vodou, Divine Horseman: The Living Gods of Haiti, which is available as a book (excellently written) and a documentary film. Most of the classic studies are written in French and Deren’s 1953 book remains the gold standard in English.
Below are some of Hector Hyppolite’s paintings as well as two other Haiti artists that show Surrealist as well as traditional influences, Rignaud Benoit and Gabriel Alix.