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National traveling exhibit of Bearden collection launches in Winston-Salem

by Jordan Green

BY JORDAN GREEN jordan@yesweekly.com

A series of Romare Bearden watercolors on loan from the Mint Museum in Charlotte hang in a gallery at Reynolda House. Slabs of text with excerpts from The Odyssey, passages of lyrics from black spirituals and snatches of the artist’s biography lay on the floor as museum staff install a new exhibit.

Romare Bearden: A Black Odyssey opens at Reynolda House Museum of American Art in Winston-Salem on Saturday. Reynolda House holds the distinction of showcasing the inaugural showcase of the national exhibit, which was organized by the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service. The 20 collages based on characters and episodes in The Odyssey were originally shown in the Cordier & Ekstrom gallery in New York City in April 1977. The artist painted the watercolors as replicas of collages later. The collection is being reassembled after being broken up into private collections and various museums for the first time since the original exhibit came down.

Bearden’s work is instantly recognizable. The late artist, who was born in Charlotte in 1911 and moved to Harlem in New York City at a young age, used modernist techniques to provide intimate views into black community life in both urban settings such as Harlem and Pittsburgh and rural settings such as his native South.

Bearden’s personal experience and the subject matter of much of his work meshed with the Great Migration, an epic demographic shift in which black people left the South in significant numbers for economic opportunity and comparative freedom in the industrial North and Midwest during the early part of the 20th century.

“He was always interested in classical subjects,” Reynolda House Managing Curator Allison Slaby said. “The search for home, journeys and migration are themes that are very familiar to Bearden. As an adult he traveled widely. He was drawn to the universality of the search for home. To stress that universality he makes the characters all black to say that this could be anyone.”

Here is “The Fall of Troy,” a chaotic mish-mash of orange flames, swarming boats and warriors brandishing steel blades. Here is the angry and powerful “Poseidon, The Sea God” with a skull. Here is “Circe,” Odysseus’ witch-goddess mistress, preening with a serpent around her arm and a lion at her feet. And here are Odysseus and his faithful wife, Penelope, reunited as royals.

Slaby points out one of the collages depicting Circe lying in bed after Odysseus’ departure. She notes that Bearden, who was influenced by jazz, improvised the scene based on the context of Homer’s story.

“He’s riffing on Homer’s text,” she says. “The catalogue calls it  ‘the empty bed blues.’ It’s an image of a black woman mourning the loss of her man.”

Slaby and marketing and communications director Sarah R. Smith note that the museum has programmed numerous events to accommodate interest in the exhibit from a variety of social experiences. Epic Thursdays, with admission set at $5 for non-members, include extended hours through 8 p.m. that might appeal to younger patrons who must to work during the day and have limited funds. Author Isabel Wilkerson will lecture on the Bearden and the Great Migration on Oct. 21.

And drawing a connection with Odysseus’ 10 years at war and 10 years struggling to return home, the museum will offer free admission to veterans and their families through the first three weeks of November. The Veterans Advocacy Law Organization at Wake Forest Law School will offer a one-day workshop on issues such as power of attorney and living wills, and the US Department of Veterans Affairs will have its mobile unit on site for two days to answer health questions.

Visitors are likely to encounter the warmth of Bearden’s vision and his abiding interest in an array of experiences and themes.

“He was an amazing man,” Slaby says. “You hear Wynton Marsalis talking about meeting him, and just remarking on his humanity.

He was larger than life — he was a physically big man — but a friend of mine refers to him as a mensch. You know, a really good guy.”

WANNA go?

Romare Bearden: A Black Odyssey opens on Saturday at Reynolda House, located at 2250 Reynolda Road in Winston-Salem. Call 336.758.5150 or visit reynoldahouse.org for details.

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