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Africa: Cairo, North Africa, the Maghreb, Sub-Saharan Africa, Madagascar
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surrealist Aragon’s Stalinist novel, Les cloches de bâle (The bells of Basil). Henein’s
opening line: “A literary work is not an election poster.”
Thanks to Henein, the Essayistes moved steadily in the direction of pure
provocation. In one of the group’s fugitive publications—an antibourgeois dictionary—he offers such definitions as these:
Anarchy: Victory of the Spirit over certainty
Beauty: The power to act
Pantheon: A place for the interment of men who might otherwise
Work: Everything that we don’t want to do
Increasingly attracted to surrealism, he began a campaign to bring the new
movement to wider attention. With tireless energy, he trumpeted the surrealist
message all over Cairo. Always controversial, his numerous articles and debates
with the Essayistes were much discussed. In October 1935 he gave a lecture
on Lautréamont and published an article on the suicide of René Crevel. Two
months later, having decided to join the surrealist movement, he wrote his first
letter to André Breton, whom he met the following spring.
By 1937 he had not only given his first public talk on surrealism in Cairo, but
had also begun organizing an Egyptian Surrealist Group, which later adopted
the name Art and Freedom. Among the first adherents of the group were poet
Edmond Jabes and the painters Kamel Telmisamy, Angelo de Riz (a refugee
from Mussolini’s Italy), and Ramses Younane. One of Henein’s closest friends
for many years, Younane—who came to be recognized as Egypt’s foremost
surrealist painter—was also an important surrealist theorist.
While planning an Egyptian surrealist publication, the question arose:
Should it be published in French or Arabic? Henein’s friend Benjamin Péret
urged him “to make every effort” to publish it in Arabic, arguing that “however
incomprehensible Arabic may be here [in France], it is always good for a little
truth to burst out elsewhere. Eventually it will spread out widely.”3
As it turned out, Henein and his friends published three journals. Art et liberté
appeared in French and Arabic (two issues, March and May 1939), while AlTattawor (Evolution) was entirely in Arabic (eight issues in 1940). The third, Don
Quichotte (two issues, December 1939 and March 1940) also appeared in French
All three of these publications were concerned with political as well as cultural matters. The high priority given to politics was not by chance. Stalinists
were bitter enemies of surrealism—and of all true revolutionists—and so were
the Egyptian nationalists. But Cairo’s surrealists were also well aware of another
impending menace: fascism. With Mussolini’s troops stationed in nearby Libya
and in Ethiopia, the fascist threat was very real in Egypt.
There is reason to believe—although the critical literature appears to be
silent on the matter—that each of the Cairo Group’s periodicals was meant to
serve a different purpose and was also directed to different readers. Art and Freedom, which included the participation of several nonsurrealist artists and writers,
was primarily a bulletin of the arts and current intellectual life, deeply concerned with pressing problems of the day and, more generally, with civil rights
and free-speech issues. It was closely allied with the International Federation of
Independent Revolutionary Art (FIARI), formed in 1938 by André Breton and
Diego Rivera (with the support of Leon Trotsky and the additional participation
of C.L.R. James) as a revolutionary alternative to the various Stalinist cultural
fronts. The FIARI manifesto, For an Independent Revolutionary Art, signed by Breton
and Rivera, demands “complete freedom for art. No authority, no dictation,
not the least trace of orders from above!” Like the FIARI elsewhere, the Art and
Freedom readership embraced socialists, Trotskyists, anarchists, syndicalists, and
several artists and writers who thought of themselves as independent radicals.
Al-Tattawor, edited by Anwar Kamel, was an explicitly political and agitational organ, affiliated with the Fourth International. Aimed principally at
workers and radical students, it focused on local labor news, women’s struggles,
and revolutionary news from around the world. Unlike most agitprop publications, however, it also featured texts on modern poetry and art.
Don Quichotte, on the contrary, emphasized high-caliber cultural criticism
and polemic. Henein contributed numerous articles on a wide range of subjects: Jean Malaquais, Alice in Wonderland, Jacques Vaché, the painter El Telmisany. His denunciation of such “classical” French authors as La Bruyère and La
Fontaine appears under the title “In Regard to Some Slovenly Characters.” In
short, Don Quichotte was a journal clearly intended for that sector of the population that Marxists liked to call advanced intellectuals.
The opening statement of the inaugural issue of Don Quichotte sums up the
basic orientation and tone of all these journals: “We struggle against: indifference, anachronism, facility, the use that people don’t make of freedom, all
falsifications, and all euphemisms.”
All through the late 1930s and the war years the Cairo Surrealist Group
maintained an intense collective activity. In addition to its journals, books, pamphlets, tracts, lectures, and occasional radio appearances, it organized five large
collective art and freedom exhibitions between 1940 and 1945, notable not
only for the high quality of the work, but also for the large number of women
participants. Nonsectarian, the Cairo surrealists and their friends took part in
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discussions and debates with other radicals, most notably at the gatherings of
diverse artists and intellectuals at the home of Henein’s friend Maria Cavadia.
But the Cairo surrealists were also active in labor struggles, at workplaces, and
in the streets.
Inevitably, Henein and his comrades had their troubles with the police, who
more than once confiscated the group’s tracts and other publications. At least
for a time, the group was also the target of a press boycott. Persecution notwithstanding, the Cairo Group remained one of the most active and productive
centers of the international surrealist movement.
The Amazing Joyce Mansour
The most important figure in Egyptian surrealism from the late 1950s on was
the great poet and fiction writer Joyce Mansour, who readily acknowledged the
influence of Henein and his comrades. Mansour, a longtime militant in the Surrealist Group, lived most of her life in Paris. Her first book, Cris (Shrieks), was a
sensation when it appeared in 1953. Its ferocious sexuality—unprecedented in
French feminine literature—was a scandal to many. In Egypt, too, many readers
were shocked, but few books were more widely read and discussed.
Her later poems and tales seethe with the same violent eroticism, and a
savage, ready-for-anything humor. Compared to her Jules César, it was said, the
then-notorious Story of O was mere rosewater. Her “women’s column” in the
surrealist magazine BIEF offered readers hilarious détournements (puns) of clichés
from fashionable women’s periodicals. An insatiable inventor of original ways
of questioning what is, Joyce Mansour was above all a bright exemplar of poetic
excess. All her writing is characterized by ardent rebelliousness, daredevil anticonformity, and belligerent scorn for the conventional in all its forms.
André Breton called her Les gisants satisfaits (The satisfied effigies), the twentieth century’s Garden of Earthly Delights. Breton, indeed, admired Mansour’s work
immensely and made it known that he considered her one of the finest postwar
surrealist poets and writers in France.4
A generous supporter of surrealist painters, to whom she dedicated appreciative articles and poems, Mansour helped organize the group’s many collective
exhibitions. In 1960, with Robert Benayoun, Octavio Paz, and Nora Mitrani,
she represented the Surrealist Group on an important BBC radio broadcast, “In
Defense of Surrealism.”
The cigar-smoking Mansour was also a gutsy activist; in 1967, for example,
she gave the notorious Stalinist Siqueiros a swift kick in the pants at the Cultural Congress of Havana. A large supportive crowd applauded and chanted:
“¡Cuba, sí! ¡Siqueiros, no!”
Rapaces (1960), a book of poems by Joyce Mansour, one of the most important
poets of the postwar period. The cover is by Jean Bent.
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Cover of Anthologie du nonsense, by Robert Benayoun, 1957.
As poet, writer, spokesperson, organizer, and activist, Joyce Mansour always
manifested a warm sense of international surrealist solidarity. Fluent in English,
she maintained friendly ties with Ted Joans as well as the group in Chicago.
North Africa: The Maghreb
The northwest region of Africa known as the Maghreb—consisting of Algeria,
Tunisia, and Morocco—has been home to several active participants in the
surrealist movement, and also to writers and artists friendly to it. Algiers, in
particular, though never a locus of collective surrealist activity per se, nevertheless over the years served as a surrealist port of call. We know, for example,
that Georges Bessière, an early Paris surrealist who collaborated on La Révolution
Surréaliste in 1925, and then dropped out of sight, published a book of his surrealist poems, S.O.S., in Algiers in 1937. A pamphlet edition of Breton’s Situation
du surréalisme entre les deux guerres appeared in the same city in 1945.
Four of the eight individuals represented in this section—Baya, Benayoun,
Kréa, and Lariby—actively participated in collective surrealist activity: Baya’s
1947 Paris exhibition catalog has a preface by André Breton, and Benayoun,
from 1949 on, was one of the most prolific and original writers in the Paris
Group. Kréa took part in the Milan Group, and Lariby in the short-lived Arab
Surrealist Movement in Exile, headquartered in Paris (see below). Atlan is
something of a special case. His close friends included several surrealists, but
his main activity centered on the Cobra movement.
Khair-Eddine, Tengour, and Laâbi had no direct involvement in organized
surrealism. In the repressive regimes they lived under, the police would not
have permitted a surrealist group to exist. However, their varied works exemplify a serious commitment to surrealism as a revolutionary means of disalienation, a subversion of the language of commerce and power, and a passionate
pursuit of the practice of poetry.
The Arab Surrealist Movement in Exile
Freedom is the most persistently lingering of desires.
The Paris-based Arab Surrealist Movement in Exile was formed in the mid1970s. Its principal founder and spokesperson was the Iraqi poet and agitator
Abdul Kader El Janaby (born in Baghdad in 1944). Already a rebel in his teens,
and constantly in trouble at school, El Janaby encountered surrealism in 1967
in a U.S. paperback. In his early twenties he translated several dozen African
American poems and blues songs, which were published in various Iraqi journals. With the formation of the Arab Surrealist Movement in Exile his socialist political views evolved increasingly toward anarchism, and he developed
close ties with surrealist groups in Paris and Chicago. The Arab Group’s strident
Manifesto—featured in English in Arsenal, no. 3—includes these lines:
We practice subversion twenty-four hours a day. We liberate language
from the prisons and stock markets of capitalist confusion.
Our surrealism, in art as in life: permanent revolution against the
world of aesthetics and other atrophied categories; the destruction and
supersession of all retrograde forces and inhibitions.
This book of drawings by Uche Okeke was published in Ibadan in 1961.
Subversion resides in surrealism the same way history resides in
Its signatories, in addition to El Janaby (which he later spelled Janabi), were
Maroin Dib (Syria), Faroq El Juridy (Lebanon), Fadil Abas Hadi (Iraq), Farid
Lariby (Algeria), and Ghazi Younes (Lebanon).
For six or seven years this group, aided by the English poet and translator
Peter Wood, was a dynamic force in international surrealism. Marxist oriented
at first, its decided turn toward anarchism is indicated by the title of its mimeographed magazine, Le désir libertaire (Libertarian desire). Political and antipolitical tracts did not, however, dominate the magazine’s content. Le désir libertaire
published poetry by most members of the group, as well as Arabic translations of poems by Joyce Mansour, Benjamin Péret, and several American surrealists. Considerable space was also given to theoretical texts. El Janaby was
acquainted with Georges Henein’s widow, Ikbal El Alailly, and with her help
devoted a special issue to Henein’s life and work. His other friends in Paris included surrealists Jean Benoit, Mimi Parent, Ted Joans, Nicole Espagnol, Alain
Joubert, Édouard Jaguer, and the Tunisian Situationist Mustapha Khayati.
In addition to the signatories to the manifesto quoted above, the Arab
Group attracted a number of other collaborators over the years, most notably
the Iraqi writer Haifa Zangana, who was also active in surrealist activity in
London. Together with the Arab Group, Zangana also took part in the 1976
World Surrealist Exhibition in Chicago. Author of a harrowing memoir, Through
the Vast Halls of Memory (1991), she has more recently distinguished herself as an
Alas, the Arab group—always prey to bitter factionalism and schism—disintegrated in the early 1980s and completely disbanded not long afterward.
In 1998 A. K. El Janaby published a memoir in French: Horizon vertical. Largely
devoted to his youth in Baghdad and his involvement in the London hippie
scene in the 1960s, the book is sketchy about surrealism generally, and about
the Arab group in particular.
Northeast Africa: Ethiopia
Ethiopia is noted for its many fine painters, but the only one directly associated with surrealism was Alexander (Skunder) Boghossian (1937–2003), who
also happens to have been widely celebrated as one of the greatest twentiethcentury African artists. During his years in Paris (late 1950s, early 1960s) his
friends included Sheikh Anta Diop, André Breton, Wifredo Lam, and Ted Joans.
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In later years he taught painting at Howard University and eventually returned
Hundreds of years before the advent of modern art in early-twentieth-century
Europe, Africans were making art that not only inspired but actually prefigured
such European movements as Cubism, Fauvism, Dada, and Surrealism.
Fauvists and Cubists were chiefly attracted by the formal aesthetic values
of African sculpture, and Dadaists by what they regarded as the weird or humorous character of certain masks. The surrealists’ interest was substantially
broader and deeper. Powerfully moved by the “convulsive beauty” of African
art, they were also eager to know more about traditional African thought and
ways of life—so very different from the ideologies and lifestyles of an increasingly decadent and imperialist-minded Europe. Above all, surrealists admired
the African artists’ fervent grasp of the poetic spirit, or, in other words, their
impassioned sense of the Marvelous.
In view of their long traditions of stonecutting, wood carving, painting, and
other arts, it should not be surprising that African artists in more recent times,
and in our time, have continued to produce works in which the triumph of
“convulsive beauty” and the Marvelous are very much in evidence. Nor should
anyone be surprised by the fact that works by many of these artists—and also
by African poets—are frequently recognized as surrealist.
For the record, the first explicitly surrealist exhibition in sub-Saharan Africa
opened in Luanda, Angola, in October 1953. It was organized by the Portuguese painter and poet Artur do Cruzeiro Seixas, who lived in Africa for fourteen years. An accompanying two-sided flyer features quotations by Aimé Césaire, André Breton, Mário Cesariny, Lautréamont, Rimbaud, Heraclitus, and
Despite geographical separation and language barriers, people find ways to
communicate. Just as contemporary surrealists in Paris, Prague, São Paulo, and
Chicago have been able to see and appreciate the art of contemporary Africa,
so too many of today’s African artists have had opportunities to see work by
surrealists from all over the world. In short, the influences are more reciprocal
Humor in its most imaginative vein retains a strong place in African surrealism. Let three examples of practitioners suffice:
1. The Ghanaian coffin builders who, not so long ago, reinvented the
coffin by shaping them into brightly colored automobiles, airplanes,
Drawing (1970) by Ignácio
Drawing by Cheikh Tidiane Sylla in Arsenal (vol. 4 ).
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ships, and—at least once—a giant beer bottle. Smaller models of these
coffins are also made as household sculptures;6
2. The anonymous creators of a wonderful new literary genre, ferry boat
literature: eight-page stapled pamphlets featuring wildly imaginative
stories just long enough to read while crossing a river; and
3. The introduction of Bugs Bunny as a motif on dashikis displayed at
Chicago’s 2006 GhanaFest, as noticed by Surrealist Group member
African genius, as expressed in its boundless innovative propensities—in the
visual arts as well as poetry—seems to have an intimate affinity with surrealism’s
quest for a social order based on poetry, love, and freedom.
Most of the poets and artists represented in this section have been directly
involved in surrealism, as participants in surrealist exhibitions (Malangatana
Valente, Inácio Matsinhe, Cheikh Tidiane Sylla) or collaborators on surrealist
publications (Dennis Brutus). Although the South African painter and sculptor Ernest Macomba did not take part in the surrealist movement, he was a
cofounder, in Paris in 1948, of the surrealist-influenced European Cobra movement—with Asger Jorn, Jean-Michel Atlan, Corneille, and others, including
Macomba’s Danish wife, Sonja Ferlov.
Poems by Jean-Joseph Rabéarivelo, an important African surrealist forerunner, have been included at the urging of Dennis Brutus and several surrealist
1.In addition to other sources noted in this section, I have drawn appreciably on documents on surrealism in Egypt—and elsewhere in Africa—
sent to me by Georges Henein’s widow, Ikbal El Alailly; the Iraqi writer
Abdul Kader El Janaby; Dennis Brutus of South Africa; the French poet
and critic Édouard Jaguer; the English painter Conroy Maddox; the
Portuguese poet and painter Arturo do Cruzeiro Seixas; and Hédi Abdul
2.Sarane Alexandrian, Georges Henein.
3.David Renton, “Georges Henein,” 82–103.
4.Breton, interview with Jacqueline Piatier, Le Monde, January 13, 1960.