Romare Bearden: A Black Odyssey
|February 26, 2015||Posted by Shanique Campbell under Exhibits|
“What struck me about The Odyssey is that all of us, from the time we begin to think, are on an odyssey. In this case, home, looking for the values that are kind of everlasting… and this is applicable to everyone”
– Romare Bearden
Romare Bearden (1911-1988) was an American artist who is renowned for his artful, visionary depictions of African American life through collages, watercolors, oils, and prints. He was a dedicated proponent of the Black Arts Movement, believing that artists should play an active, integral role in advocating for civil rights. Consequently he cofounded the arts alliance, Spiral, with three other Harlem-based artists to promote engagement in the civil rights movement. Yet, the artist was not only concerned with African America. Bearden used his art to express the shared affinities of humanity and the universal human condition whether Black, White, rural, or urban. He was intrigued by stories of and the lives of travelers to and from home; themes that he identified and connected with in Ancient Greek sagas like Homer’s Odyssey.
The Odyssey is a Greek epic that tells the story of Odysseus’ nostos (homeward journey) after the fall of Troy. In his 1977 Odysseus Series Bearden interprets Homer’s epic as a myth that takes place in Africa and embodies African Americans’ own longing for home. Much of Bearden’s retelling of the Odyssey is drastically different from Homer’s. For example, Bearden turns Homer’s famous tale of Odysseus and the man-eating cyclops into a colorful scene where the one-eyed monster is seemingly a harmless baby. Furthermore, the 20-collage series recreated all of Homer’s characters, whether gods or mortals, as Blacks. Hence, the series was aptly and popularly dubbed The Black Odyssey. In an interview prior to his death, Bearden explained that with this approach “what I tried to [do] is take the elements of African American life… and place it in a universal framework.”
Back in 2012, the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service (SITES), in cooperation with the Romare Bearden Foundation, organized a seven-city national exhibit of Romare Bearden’s Black Odyssey. This exhibit showcases nearly 50 pieces including the original 20 artworks from the Odyssey Series and Bearden’s 1968 series, Cotton Field. The exhibit will be on display at the Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Art Gallery, Columbia University, New York, NY until March 14, 2015.
SITES has created a free, downloadable collage app that allows one to create their own unique works of art to express their personal journey by remixing pieces from Black Odyssey. The app, Romare Bearden Black Odyssey Remixes, is available on iTunes. It encourages each person to share how they would interpret Homer’s Odyssey and post their creations using #romarebearden.
Pieces from Black Odyssey by Romare Bearden
The photographs included in this article have been sourced from the Smithsonian Institute Traveling Exhibitions website.