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