On May 18, the Amon Carter Museum of American Art presents Romare Bearden: A Black Odyssey, an exhibition of nearly 50 artworks by Romare Bearden (1911–1988), one of the most powerful and original artists of the 20th century. The collages, watercolors and prints in the exhibition are based on Homer’s epic poem “The Odyssey,” the ancient story of the Greek hero Odysseus’s journey home to Ithaca after fighting in the Trojan War. The exhibition is the first full-scale presentation of these works outside of New York City and is organized by the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service (SITES). Romare Bearden: A Black Odyssey is on view at the Amon Carter through August 11, and admission is free.
In the Black Odyssey series, Bearden establishes an artistic bridge between Homer’s poem—arguably the definitive work of classical mythology—and African-American culture by depicting Homeric characters as black players on the timeless stage of antiquity. As Bearden once said, “All of us are on a kind of odyssey. And I think this is what makes the story so lasting, so classic, and applicable to everyone.”
Robert G. O’Meally, the Zora Neale Hurston Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University and curator of the exhibition, suggests a still broader context to Bearden’s series, which assures us that the search for home, family and a sense of belonging is central to self-discovery for all modern-day Americans regardless of race. “In creating the Black Odyssey series,” O’Meally says, “Bearden not only staked a claim to the tales of ancient Greece as having modern relevance, he also made the claim of global cultural collage—that as humans, we are all collages of our unique experiences. Indeed, Bearden does not merely illustrate Homer—he is Homer’s true collaborator, and he invites us as viewers to inherit Homer’s tale and interpret it as our own.”
Amon Carter director Andrew J. Walker concurs. “Bearden’s reinterpretation of ‘The Odyssey’ has a universal appeal that will perhaps allow us all to reflect on our own personal journeys,” he says. “The artworks are beautiful and filled with vivid, saturated colors and geometric images that captivate the imagination. Because Bearden’s work is not in our collection, the exhibition offers an introduction of this important American artist to our visitors.”
The exhibition provides visitors with many ways to learn about Bearden’s life and work. A multimedia tour is available as a free app on web-compatible devices, including smartphones and tablets, and works with Android and Apple operating systems. Visitors may also access the tour on one of the museum’s handheld devices, available for free check out during their visit. Visitors can create works of art by remixing Bearden’s collages in a free iPad app titled “Romare Bearden: Black Odyssey Remixes.” With this app, visitors can layer shapes and forms, and add written words and sound to a variety of Bearden backdrops. (This app is only accessible on visitors’ iPads; devices are not available at the museum.)
Within the exhibition visitors can discover Bearden’s influences, inspiration and techniques through a 15-minute film. It features rarely seen interviews and footage of Bearden at work in his studio; poignant insight and analysis from O’Meally and Diedra Harris-Kelley, the artist’s niece; and commentary from his close friend and personal photographer, Frank Stewart.
In conjunction with the exhibition, the museum will display the work of local artist Sedrick Huckaby (b. 1975), who credits Bearden as an important influence. Huckaby’s 18-by-14-foot oil painting Hidden in Plain Site (2011) will be displayed in the museum’s atrium through October.
Romare Bearden: A Black Odyssey is organized by the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service in cooperation with the Romare Bearden Foundation and Estate and DC Moore Gallery. The exhibition and its related educational resources are supported by a grant from the Stavros Niarchos Foundation. The Fort Worth presentation is supported in part by Bates Container, the Garvey Texas Foundation and AZZ incorporated.
A fully illustrated companion book of the same name (DC Moore Gallery, 2008), written by O’Meally, complements the exhibition. The hardcover book features full-color images of Bearden’s work and an essay by O’Meally, and retails for $45 in the Amon Carter’s Museum Store + Café.
After the exhibition closes in Fort Worth, it continues on its seven-city national tour through 2014 with stops in Madison, Wis., Atlanta, Manchester, N.H. and New York.