In An American Odyssey: The Life and Work of Romare Bearden (Oxford, Sept.), Spelman College president Campbell examines the career and legacy of the Harlem Renaissance muralist Romare Bearden (1911–1988).
The book chronicles how Bearden evolved from a painter to a collagist. Why did he choose that path?
Collage allowed Bearden to reconcile a lot of vastly different directions into something unified. He could pull in a Western Renaissance painting, a piece of African sculpture, a Japanese painting. He was an artist who lived at the intersection of all of those diverse cultures. And I think he saw the identity of black people as being this kind of archaeological mix of cultures as well.
Some of Bearden’s themes include the Great Migration of African-Americans from the South to the North in the 20th century. How did these manifest in his art?
A painting such as The Visitation, where two elderly women are greeting each other in a rural setting, is clearly a reference to Bearden’s birthplace in Charlotte, N.C. In Factory Workers, three men are idle on a street corner in a modern, industrial city, which is clearly a reference to Pittsburgh, where Bearden spent some time during his childhood. As you look at Bearden’s paintings, you get rhythms, rituals, and ceremonies from the South and the North that define so much of black culture.
What was the influence of writer Ralph Ellison, choreographer Alvin Ailey, and cultural theorist Albert Murray on Bearden’s art?
Ralph Ellison, who was probably the most profound and insightful commentators on the essence of Bearden’s work, created an existential narrative of what it is to be black in America, and I think that Bearden’s collages also had that same [kind] of existential presence. In terms of Ailey—whom he met in Paris—Bearden had conversations with [Ailey and other] choreographers about the black body as an expressive element. Albert Murray, in the last decade of Bearden’s life, was probably his closest friend and associate. What Al saw in Bearden’s work was his relationship to jazz: not only in the final product, but by the way Bearden improvised, moved, and added pieces, shapes, and colors.
What other art forms are comparable to Bearden’s work?
Hip-hop is very comfortable in appropriating bits and pieces of other cultures inside of its own cultural framework. That’s exactly what Bearden was doing. He created an enormously affirmative vision of black life and black people, which we now see in visual culture in general, in the film Black Panther, Ava DuVernay’s Selma, and in the many television shows that reflect black life and culture.