Romare Bearden: On Re-imaging and (Re)imagining Black Life and the Unified Fragments of “Three Folk Musicians”

Like many African American artists of his day, Romare Bearden created artworks birthed and nurtured in struggle—a struggle not only for recognition and respect, but also a struggle to break the bonds of racialized stereotypes. Bearden’s complex understanding of the individual and the community and the artist and the art historical tradition plays an important role in the development of his own artistic style and social identity as well as his re-imaging of black life in America.

R. Bearden, "Three Folk Musicians," 1967Critical theorists, philosophers of race, and novelists have analyzed and depicted the experiences of black people in racialized contexts as an ongoing experience of absence. That is, to be black in a white world is to be rendered invisible and muted—to be treated socially and politically as if you did not exist or did not exist as a human being worthy of respect, civic rights, and mutual recognition. Conversely, theorists have analyzed blackness as an over-determined, fixed presence. In this understanding, the black body’s presence is amplified in public spaces, perceived in advance as dangerous, criminal, sexually deviant. Under this (white) lens, black bodies must be constantly surveilled, hemmed in, monitored, and segregated. Either way, blackness is scripted by the white other and in ways that blacks find demeaning, false, and in need of re-formation and re-narration.

One encounters this type of personal and communal identity re-narration in the works of Frederick Douglass, Ralph Ellison, Zora Neale Hurston, Toni Morrison, Aime Césaire, Franz Fanon, W. E. B. Dubois, and many others. The quest to find one’s (black) voice involves an intertextual performativity. That is, the subjugated writer or artist engages the dominant tradition through serious study of its tropes, metaphors, stylistic nuances, and exemplary figures. While the black artist appreciates and admires the renowned works of the dominant tradition, the goal is not mere imitation or assimilation; rather, the black artist seeks to affirm the value and beauty of black difference. Given that the black artist is creating from a subaltern position, her works not only proclaim the significance of black difference, but they also challenge and seek to expand and even overturn both the society’s and the (in this case, art) tradition’s accepted discourses, values, and practices. Artist Aaron Douglas, a key player in the Harlem Renaissance, and poet Aime Césaire, one of the founders of the Négritude movement intentionally drew from African sources and inspirations in order to insert black difference into the prevailing artistic discourses and practices. By fashioning new aesthetic forms, styles, and ways of expressing black culture and history, these artists helped to dismantle negative and demeaning images of blacks as uncivilized, lacking in culture and intellectual acuity, and mere “entertainers” for whites (rather than serious artists).

Like the artists mentioned above, Bearden too chose to foreground black difference in his artistic creations. In his artworks we encounter European stylistic influences infused with symbols, rituals, and mythic elements associated with African American life in both its Southern and Northern expressions. The resulting style is clearly modern but manifests a distinctively black-modern identity. For example, in his 1967 painting, Three Folk Musicians, Beardon combines cubist formal elements with his own collage technique. The content of the painting focuses on three African American folk musicians adorned in brightly colored clothing—clothing that unites both black rural and urban life as symbolized by the figures donning both overalls and berets. The musician on the left and the one in the center are pictured with guitars, and the musician on the right—the one wearing overalls—is holding a banjo, an instrument believed to have been introduced to America via the slave trade. Many of the musicians facial features and parts of their hands have been cut out and reconfigured from various previously existing pictures taken from popular magazines and other sources. Not only does Bearden fuse together different aspects of black life and history, but he also presents a complex view of social construction. That is, our individual lives are both constituted by others—depicted visually in the artwork through the collage assemblage of various body parts of others forming the bodies of each individual musician—and (re)formed through the artist’s creative fashioning of him- or herself in relation to others. In his use of symbols of African American life and history—the overalls signifying life in the rural South, the beret signifying urban life in the North (the beret was a popular fashion trend during the Harlem Renaissance), the banjo, and the emphasis on creative activity via music-making—Bearden subverted white discourses demeaning black life and culture and presented black difference as vibrant, creative, complex, and worthy of respect. As Glazer puts it, “in Three Folk Musicians, Bearden seems to have defined his artistic identity in exclusively black terms, emphasizing the difference and distinction—in short, the presence—of black creativity.”[1] By bringing fragments together to form a unified work, Bearden shows art’s power to create a world, to bring some sense of wholeness to fragmentation (even if the wholeness is temporary and open to change).

Notes

[1] Lee Stephens Glazer, “Signifying Identity: Art and Race in Romare Bearden’s Projections,” Art Bulletin 76 (1994): 411–426, here 413.

*The image of Bearden’s, “Three Folk Musicians,” 1967 (Photographs © Romare Bearden Foundation/VAGA, New York) is taken from the following website:  http://www.nytimes.com/imagepages/2004/10/15/arts/15KIMMCA03ready.html

The Life and Art of Romare Bearden


I recently came across this website, as I was searching for information on artist, Romare Bearden.  The excerpts below are taken directly from the website, here and here. In case you are not familiar with Bearden’s life and work, please visit the site and enjoy the virtual tour, which includes a biography and a showcase of his wonderful art. 

 “The complex and colorful art of Romare Bearden (1911-1988) is autobiographical and metaphorical. Rooted in the history of western, African, and Asian art, as well as in literature and music, Bearden found his primary motifs in personal experiences and the life of his community. Born in Mecklenburg County, North Carolina, Bearden moved as a toddler to New York City, participating with his parents in the Great Migration of African Americans to states both north and west. The Bearden home became a meeting place for Harlem Renaissance luminaries including writer Langston Hughes, painter Aaron Douglas, and musician Duke Ellington, all of whom undoubtedly would have stimulated the young artist’s imagination.

Bearden maintained a lifelong interest in science and mathematics, but his formal education was mainly in art, at Boston University and New York University, from which he graduated in 1935 with a degree in education. He also studied at New York’s Art Students League with the German immigrant painter George Grosz, who reinforced Bearden’s interest in art as a conveyor of humanistic and political concerns. In the mid-1930s Bearden published dozens of political cartoons in journals and newspapers, including the Baltimore based Afro-American, but by the end of the decade he had shifted the emphasis of his work to painting.

During a career lasting almost half a century Bearden produced approximately two thousand works. Best known for his collages, he also completed paintings, drawings, monotypes, and edition prints; murals for public spaces, record album jackets, magazine and book illustrations, and costume and set designs for theater and ballet.

[…]

From shortly after he graduated from college through the late 1960s Bearden maintained a full-time job with New York’s Department of Social Services, specializing in cases within the gypsy community. Work in his studio was concentrated at night and on weekends. Nevertheless, starting in 1940 Bearden’s art was represented in solo and group exhibitions, both in Harlem and downtown (below 110th Street), and it consistently received enthusiastic reviews. Religious rituals and literature played an important role in Bearden’s life and art. So did music–from sights and sounds of folk musicians gathered for “the Saturday night function” in the south, to the hot tempo of Harlem clubs and dance halls.

In the early 1950s Bearden devoted considerable attention to song writing, and several of his collaborations were published as sheet music, among the most famous of which is “Seabreeze,” recorded by Billy Eckstine. In addition, throughout his life Bearden wrote essays on social and art-historical subjects, as well as three full-length books coauthored with friends: The Painter’s Mind: A Study of the Relations of Structure and Space in Painting (1969) with painter Carl Holty; and Six Black Masters of American Art (1972) and A History of African-American Artists: From 1792 to the Present (posthumously, 1993), both with journalist Harry Henderson.”

[The painting displayed above is, Captivity and Resistance, 1976, a collage of various fabrics on canvas African American Museum in Philadelphia © Romare Bearden Foundation/Licensed by VAGA, New York, N.Y.  The central theme is the 1839 Mende rebellion aboard the sailing ship Amistad. Prince Cinque, the hero of the battle, is portrayed at center holding a staff. At right is the ominous apparatus for a lynching, presumably that of John Brown whose spirit shadow hangs over figures representing abolitionists Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman].