A classic speaks to modern black life

by Jordan Green


Romare Bearden’s images, particularly his signature collages, have lodged in my consciousness like those of few other artists.

My first exposure was probably as a teenager, when “Jammin’ at the Savoy” sent to me on a postcard by some perceptive adult who wanted to ensure that I grew up with a proper appreciation for culture. The subject matter is common enough — a jazz ensemble — but the colors explode from the frame like the spontaneity of the music itself. The cubist influence puts the perspective just slightly off kilter but the forms are immediately recognizable. The bold lines and odd angles conjure both harmony and dissonance.

The artist’s affection for his subjects is evidence in this piece, as it is in all his work. Bearden’s work, whether the setting is the rural South or the industrial North, is often concerned with the collective life of black folks. The figures portrayed in the collages display by turns joy, sorrow, raucous laughter, wry wisdom and sometimes all those phases in one piece. Bearden’s life from 1911 to 1988 — he was born in Charlotte and came of age in Harlem — parallels the Great Migration and many other significant events of the 20th century.

With all this in mind, it only made sense to drag my 16-year-old cousin by marriage to the Romare Bearden: A Black Odyssey exhibit at Reynolda House Museum of American Art in Winston-Salem on a recent Saturday afternoon. How would the great themes of Bearden’s art translate to the classic Greek epic? I wondered. And would Bearden’s work make as profound an impact on my 16-year-old cousin as it did on me when I was his age?

Seeing these collages on a gallery wall, as opposed to a postcard, a poetry book cover or exhibit brochure turned out to be a revelation. As a curator featured in the exhibit video says, Bearden uses color in a way that “makes it walk around like big men.” And the actual collages seem to breathe like living organisms in the intricacy of the seams that connect each piece of cut paper.

Diedra Harris-Kelly, Bearden’s niece, says in the exhibit video that her uncle saw The Odyssey — the story of a Greek warrior’s decade-long journey home at the conclusion of the Trojan War — as a metaphor for black American life. (It must also be said that the depiction of all the mortals, gods, heroes and villains as black in Bearden’s Odyssey series underscores the universality of Homer’s epic.)

The reference to The Odyssey as metaphor for black American life is only the beginning of the rich overlay between 8th century BC Greece and the black American experience.

An inscription beside Bearden’s collage “The Fall of Troy,” complete with flames bursting from buildings, warships plying the waters and bare-chested men wielding long knives, suggests comparisons with the American Civil War and the urban riots of the 1960s as points of departure.

The exhibit presents Bearden’s collage “The Sea Nymph” next to “The Baptism,” a screen-print made about a year before the Odyssey series was undertaken that falls more squarely in Bearden’s traditional canon. Both works depict a submersion under water with figures wrapped in garments as they experience transformation.

“They look creepy,” my cousin comments on the almost grotesque figures in “The Baptism.”

Yes, but like Circe — pitch black, fierce and beautiful with a lion at her feet, a serpent wrapped around her arm and a bird perched on her hand — utterly unforgettable.