The overlap between surrealism, activism and liberation

In art, literature and philosophy, surrealism aimed to liberate the mind

The surrealist movement was born out of an artistic push beyond the imposed framework and expectations of art understanding. Developed in the 20th century, it took the unconscious perceptions of life and dreams, seeking to display reality unconventionally. With a narrative extending the typical art norms, surrealist artists invited viewers to tap into their unconscious to read illogical scenes logically. 

René Magritte’s surreal scenes blurs the audience's understanding of everyday objects. The Listening Room does this through an alteration of how one recognises the role of the apple. One can question its presence; for example, why it is so large, if it is edible and how it came to be. Disrupting the standardised perception of reality, Magritte invites the audience to liberate their minds beyond typical thinking. 

René Magritte, The Listening Room, oil paint on canvas, 1952. Courtesy of:

This notion of liberation is key to many justice and activist movements

One can note an innate link between activism and surrealist art: to encourage society’s understanding beyond taught and enforced frameworks to visualise a better world. Climate justice movements, for example, seek to change perceptions on humanity’s relationship with the environment. It underscores humanity’s demonstrable impact on the Earth and its consequential impact on vulnerable communities, rather than seeing nature and people as separate entities. Similar to Magritte’s work, the movement blurs lines in order to seek justice and liberation for people of colour, Black communities and Indigenous communities at risk.

Surrealist art can advocate for thinking outside the norm…

Artists can utilise surreal visuality to display thoughts and ideas that cannot be represented purely within reality; but rather can sit opposite to them, outside of expectations. Katrina Pruss’ work Nymph utilises this surrealist concept to expand on the multiplicity within sexuality and identity. The piece, eccentrically yet sensuously, visualises and liberates the erotic beyond the standardised norm. Pruss describes the piece as a "gender fluid fighting spirit" acting as "a watchful eye on the patriarchy." With "period bubbles, [a] clit head [and a] cactus penis" the surreal figure represents a sense of solidity outside of the gender binary of male dominance.

Katrina Pruss, Nymph, ink, liquid gel pen and pencil crayon on Stonehenge paper.

…while also candidly displaying social realities 

Political, social and economic upheaval can call artists to display the social realities in an overt manner; with surrealist tendencies aiding in a truthful representation of what this instability feels to those experiencing it. Duo artists, LumliLumlong’s surreal paintings highlight the terrifying realities in Hong Kong to promote pro-democracy. Their work The Brainwashed depicts how the Hong Kong Government amends education content, shaping children to become unquestioningly patriotic and drop their critical thinking. An ant - commonly found in Salvador Dali's work symbolising death, decay and mortality - is astutely placed to highlight the figure’s despair. 

Lumli Lumlong, The Brainwashed 洗腦人, oil on canvas, 2012. 


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