The Topicality of Afro-Surrealism Today and Forever: A Critical Analysis of the ‘Afro-Surreal Manifesto’ by D. Scot Miller

 

By Rali Chorbadzhiyska

A few years after the coining of the term ‘Afro-Surrealism’ by Amiri Baraka in the 20th century, D. Scott Miller writes the movement’s manifesto in 2009.[1] Miller outlines the newness of Afro-Surrealism by also defending its engagement with past influences. He accounts for the politicising of the aesthetics with the prefix ‘Afro’ but at the s ame time claims it to be inclusive. By using the theatricality of the manifesto and its interest in the immediacy of the present as related to its past and future, Miller situates the manifesto in a perpetual present and thus makes acceptable the gap in his response, also reinforcing the necessity for Afro-Surrealism.

The epigraph ‘Black is the new black – a 21st century manifesto’ is written in present tense and situates the text in contemporary history.[2] As well as playing on a popular phrase, the word ‘new’ links the Afro-Surrealist art with innovation. While focusing on the present where the ‘new’ manifests, the concept also implies there was something previous which had to change, be substituted. The name implies a hybrid style that takes the pre-existing tradition of Surrealism from the 1920s and politicises it by adding the prefix ‘Afro’. As ‘sur’ means ‘over or above’, the spectator of Surrealism expects intensified reality.[3] In the 1980s Amiri Baraka outlined a specific black culture audience by naming the art (an event that Miller recalls in his manifesto with the phrase ‘Baraka had named it’)[4] Afro-Surrealism.[5] However, as expressed by Phetogo Tshepo Mahasha’s term in his article ‘African Renaissance, How The Prefix ‘Afro-‘ May Arrest Imagination & Manifesto Salesmanship’, there is a certain frustration in the layering of terms.[6] As implied from the title, Mahasha is irritated by the usage of the prefix ‘Afro’ to capture attention for the mere purpose of sales. He argues that it serves to modify the pre-existent movement of Surrealism with its manifesto by simply modifying ‘the creativity of others’.[7] Mahasha does not believe in the revolutionary character of Afro-Surrealism as presented by Miller, who tries to distinguish it from Surrealism by pinpointing the pre-existent movement as not Afro-Surrealist, because it appropriates a previous term. So let’s see how Miller defends it!

The focus of Afro-Surrealism is the present but it does not deny succession of time and the importance of the past as an agent in shaping the ‘now’. In point three of the Afro-Surrealist practices, Miller admits its link to the past but only in its purpose to be reimagined in the present. His exact words are: ‘Afro-Surrealists restore the cult of the past. We revisit old ways with new eyes’.[8] Thus, there is not a contradiction, according to the manifesto, between the name and the ideology of Afro-Surrealism as it might have been suggested by Mahasha. The preceding movement of Surrealism, according to a manifesto by Andre Breton, merges reality with fantasy to create ‘a kind of superior reality’[9]. When Miller speaks of the strategies of Afro-Surrealism – the ‘use of excess as the only legitimate means of subversion’, it is evident that the new aesthetics do not only combine but also build upon the end product of reality and fantasy. Then, if the new movement is interested in modernizing and politicizing the past in the present, the addition of a prefix to a pre-existent term is in line with the purpose of Afro-Surrealism art. Having in mind the importance of the present to Afro-Surrealism, the ‘Afro’ prefix in the name hints at that same present’s treatment of race. It also shows that the new aesthetics do not only reimagine artistic but also human history.

Although by identifying a specific race, and thus making it a part of the black narrative, suggests a narrower public, Miller defends Afro-Surrealism to have a broad application due to its inclusive nature. Miller differentiates it from strictly African art by borrowing justification from Sartre who comments on the African Surrealism (‘[it] is revolutionary because it is surrealist, but itself is surrealist because it is black’, the latter part of which implies that being surreal because it is black means that its racial charge defines it as above reality). And yet the innovation of the aesthetics is its reimagined specificity. Miller outlines the inclusiveness of the term by referring to its etymology:  ‘The root for ’’Afro-‘’ can be found in ‘’Afro-Asiatic’’, meaning a shared language between black, brown, and Asian peoples of the world’. Miller speaks of San Francisco and its decreasing black population by also expanding the danger: ‘No black people means no black artists, and all you yet-untouched freaks are next’. Continuing that line of thought, Miller adds later in practice number six that ‘Afro-Surrealism is intersexed, Afro-Asiatic, Afro-Cuban, mystic, silly, and profound’. Thus, Miller suggests Afro-Surrealism to be about belief and performativity; it can be anyone. It also implies that it is not grounded in black history only, black history is world history; it is grounded in the necessity for the discourse and the art at a perpetual present.

The theatricality of the manifesto is contained in its preoccupation with that same present in combination with the implications of the text’s genre. Even though the text was posted in 2009 and this is clearly noticeable on the blog’s web page, the manifesto possesses a performative quality that brings it to live every time a person reads it, creating the concept of the perpetual present. Although Miller denies Afro-Futurism as a feature of Afro-Surrealism in his section on what Afro-Surrealism is not, he clarifies that it is because it is a different movement involved with contemplating the future.  Instead, Afro-Surrealism being situated and strictly interested in the present, considers the ‘RIGHT NOW’ a source of speculation about the future; there is ‘no need for tomorrow’s-tongue speculation about the future’.  According to the author, the ‘future-past’, or the future’s past, is ‘RIGHT NOW’. Then he reiterates it with an example: ‘RIGHT NOW, Barack Hussein Obama is America’s first black president’. Due to the inevitable passage of time, politics, and history, Barack Obama is not a president of the United States at the time of this academic essay written in 2017. Nevertheless, the phrase ‘first black president’ is a fact that will always be true of American history. Thus, the sentence, and subsequently the manifesto, will be true in any Era they are ‘performed’ by being read. And there is a hint that this was Miller’s agenda from the beginning when he urges the necessity for Afro-Surreal art because of others’ works but also because of ‘the words you are reading right now’. Here the text is aware of itself and its importance, making it an agent in its own performativity. Therefore, the Afro-Surrealist manifesto acts as an explanation of but also a manifestation of the aesthetics’ ideology and explores Afro-Surrealism’s treatment of time, origins and politics to prove the world’s necessity for it.

According to Miller’s manifesto, the purpose of the Afro-Surreal movement is to, as time progresses, ‘transform how we see things now, how we look at what happened then, and what we can expect to see in the future’. The ultimate goal for the future, according to the ending of the manifesto, is the ability to actually pinpoint Afro-Surrealism. As the movement is occupied with the perpetual present, this goal could be deemed impossible due to the impossibility of future in a succession of presents. At the same time, creates a new chronology where every moment is contemporaneity. Thus, Afro-Surrealism IS always being performed through reading Miller’s manifesto; the Afro-Surreal politics and ideology ARE always in power.

[1] D. Scot Miller, AFROSURREAL MANIFESTO (2009) <http://dscotmiller.blogspot.co.uk/&gt; [accessed 25 February 2017].

[2] Miller, p.1.

[3] Cambridge Dictionary, Meaning of “sur-” in the English Dictionary () <http://dictionary.cambridge.org&gt; [accessed 25 February 2017].

[4] Miller, p.1.

[5] Charles Moffat, Suzanne MacNevin, The Origins of Surrealism (2011) <http://www.arthistoryarchive.com/&gt; [accessed 25 February 2017].

[6] Phetogo Tshepo Mahasha, African Renaissance, How The Prefix ‘Afro-‘ May Arrest Imagination & Manifesto Salesmanship (2014) <http://www.indiewire.com/&gt; [accessed 25 February 2017].

[7] Mahasha, p.1.

[8] Miller, p.1.

[9] Moffat, p.1.

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