Journal of Surrealism and the Americas, Vol 6, No 1 (2012)

'What Makes Indians Laugh': Surrealism, Ritual and Return in Steven Yazzie and Joseph Beuys

Claudia Mesch


This paper traces the shift into performative interactions by European scholars and artists as they sought or feigned interaction with the spirits and objects of Native American culture. I discuss the postwar artworks of Max Ernst, Joseph Beuys, and Steven Yazzie. I argue that each of these artists’ use of Native American objects goes beyond earlier surrealist appropriative and mimetic strategies. From a postcolonial position, these artworks address personal trauma as well as the collective trauma of colonialism. Aby Warburg’s late nineteenth-century travel to the American Southwest, and his resulting notion of an aesthetics of empathy, or of “mimesis through communion with/entering into the object,” becomes very relevant for Beuys’ work in particular. Furthermore these postwar artworks by Ernst, Beuys and Yazzie contain a comic element that invites laughter, a critical/therapeutic element that Pierre Clastres describes as a distinctly political act.

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