CELEBRATED FOR HIS RICH, LAYERED DEPICTIONS of African American life and culture, Romare Bearden’s decision to produce 20 collages based on episodes of Homer’s “The Odyssey” was widely viewed as a departure from his practice. Citing themes familiar to the African American experience—mourning, wandering and questing for home—scholar Robert O’Meally argues that the 1977 series inspired by the Greek epic poem in fact bolsters the artist’s central concerns.

Columbia University recently announced that “Romare Bearden: A Black Odyssey,” a traveling Smithsonian exhibition will be on view at its Wallach Art Gallery beginning November 2014. Curated by O’Meally, Zora Neale Hurston Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia, the exhibition is part of a yearlong, university-wide exploration of Bearden’s body of work through various schools and departments via curriculum, programs, lectures and other special events.

bearden-black odysseyEvery undergraduate at Columbia College is required to read Homer’s “The Odyssey” and the focus on Bearden is intended to be an illuminating extension of the literary experience.

Nearly a decade before he made the Black Odyssey collages, Bearden expressed his intention to invoke classic, universal themes in his work, without abandoning his closely tethered connection to the black experience:

“If you equate a lot of the things that happened in Negro life you see there’s a continuity with many of the great classical things that have happened before. And this is what I tried to find in my work, this connotation of many of the things that have happened to me with the great classical things of the past.”
— Romare Bearden, Smithsonian Oral History Interview, June 29, 1968

WHEN BEARDEN’S BLACK ODYSSEY COLLAGES were exhibited at DC Moore Gallery in 2007-08, the occasion marked the first comprehensive presentation of the works since they were created 30 years earlier.

“Perhaps Bearden did not wander so far afield, after all,” O’Meally states in the release for the exhibition, and suggests, “that Bearden saw Harlem in Homer’s Odyssey, and Odysseus in Harlem. Behind the faces of Homer’s Greek characters—in the figures of Odysseus, Penelope, Poseidon, Nausicca— Bearden detected a blues-like heroism that would enable black American’s ongoing search for home.” CT


Opening this fall, the exhibition at Columbia University’s gallery will be on view from Nov. 15 to December 13, 2014 and Jan. 21 to March 14, 2015.


You may also want to check out: “Romare Bearden: A Black Odyssey,” by Robert O’Meally (DC Moore Gallery, 116 pages). | Published Feb. 1, 2008.


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