Ancient Greek literature and modern American art seldom collide, let alone appear in the same museum exhibit. Seeing both through an African-American lens is an even rarer event, but such a mashup is now on display at the Amon Carter Museum of American Art in Romare Bearden: A Black Odyssey, a collection of nearly 50 collages, watercolors, and prints.
Bearden, one of North American’s most prolific 20th-century artists, was also an avid lover of literature and philosophy. Toward the end of his life, around 1977, he created the Black Odyssey series based on the epic Greek poem.
Originally commissioned for an art exhibit in Manhattan, this collection depicts the story of Odysseus’ 20-year journey home to Ithaca following the end of the Trojan War. But Black Odyssey is not merely a visual depiction of an ancient text. Bearden creatively reworked the tale in the guise of the African-American experience.
“What struck me about The Odyssey is that all of us, from the time we begin to think, are on an odyssey,” Bearden recalled in a documentary created by the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service.
Bearden masterfully interweaves the stories and struggles of black Americans by depicting the Greek characters as black and incorporating African and Eastern iconography, giving this collection a 21st-century cultural fusion feel.
Collage is the medium Bearden is best remembered for, perhaps because it captures the kind of fooling-the-viewer skill that he saw as part of art.
“Bearden started out as a painter,” said Shirley Reece-Hughes, assistant curator of painting and sculpture at the Carter. “He really didn’t start experimenting with collage until 1950.”
The jazz scene of the 1950s (Bearden knew Duke Ellington and Fats Waller) inspired Bearden to use this more improvisational form of art. “You place an object on a collage, then you can move it. Collage has more of an improvisational spirit,” Reece-Hughes said.
“Home to Ithaca” is a collage of paper, foil, paint, and graphite on fiberboard. Odysseus is depicted standing triumphantly at the bow of his ship with shield and spear in hand (a sharp departure from Homer’s depiction of a sleeping Odysseus unaware of his arrival home). Adorning Odysseus’ featureless black ship are several ornate tribal African patterns, lending credence to the idea that this is the coast of North Africa and not Greece. Bearden largely eschews warm colors in favor of cool hues of blue and green. Within the sea of harmonious, coastal colors, vibrant pastel hues of pink and yellow add vibrancy and life, awakening viewers from their slumber.
Bearden once told a reporter that he would not use color until he could use color that would “walk around like big men.” He certainly achieved that effect here.
“Poseidon, The Sea God” is another collage that depicts Odysseus’ nemesis. Again, cool colors of blue are juxtaposed starkly with hues of pink and red.
Bearden paints Poseidon as a masked African warrior. The Greek god is depicted with a large, protruding forehead and small eyes and mouth, symbols of wisdom in many parts of tribal Africa. The warrior mask alludes to a god-like status, suggesting an African version of Poseidon’s position as a god in Greek mythology.
While Black Odyssey emphasizes African-American characters and imagery, Bearden’s work goes beyond depicting the tribulations of black Americans in the 20th century. By taking a text that is a cornerstone of Western culture and emphasizing its theme of a voyage, he communicates a message that is universal and transcends ethnic lines.
A Black Odyssey
Thru August 11th at Amon Carter Museum of American Art, 3501 Camp Bowie Blvd, FW.