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Romare Bearden: A Black Odyssey at the Currier Museum of Art

Key image for: Romare Bearden: A Black Odyssey at the Currier Museum of Art

Romare Bearden, Battle with Cicones, 1977, collage of various papers with graphite on fiberboard, 32 x 44 in., Museum purchase. Art © Romare Bearden Foundation/Licensed by VAGA, New York.

Manchester, NH – The hero’s journey is a timeless narrative that exists throughout popular culture, from movies to comic books. The original hero’s journey, Homer’s Odyssey has kept audiences in rapt attention for almost three millennia with its stories of the fearsome Cyclops and the vengeful god Poseidon. The epic has been retold and reinterpreted countless times, and each retelling incorporates elements of contemporary life, giving new relevance to the ancient, yet universal, tale of an individual’s search for home. In the exhibition Romare Bearden: A Black Odyssey, the artist uses African-American characters, visually reinterpreting Homer’s 2,700-year old spoken-word tale of the Greek king Odysseus’ epic personal journey. The result is a series of bold, colorful collages and watercolors from the 1970s that will be presented at the Currier Museum of Art from March 29 through August 17, 2014.

One of the leading modern artists of the 20th century, Romare Bearden (1911-1988) is best known for his depictions of black America. What makes this exhibition so compelling is that Bearden reinterprets this ancient story through the lens of his own experience as an African-American. Odysseus’ journey becomes Bearden’s journey. All the characters are black, including the hero, Odysseus, whose search for home echoes the desire of African-Americans to find a place to call home, post-slavery. In the end, Bearden’s collages reveal universal stories about the personal journey, and everyone’s desire to find his/her own place in the world.

Each of the artworks in the exhibition focuses on a particular chapter in Odysseus’ journey, which begins at the conclusion of The Iliad, Homer’s gory account of the mythological Trojan War. Bearden visually retells the story of Odysseus’ encounters with dangerous temptations and mythical beasts including the sweet-singing Sirens and one-eyed Cyclops. Bearden’s interpretation of Homer’s story reminds viewers that the world remains a dangerous place and that history most certainly repeats itself.

About Romare Bearden

While he was born in Charlotte, N.C., Bearden was raised in Harlem, a place of greater opportunity for African-Americans during the early- and mid-20th century. In New York, the Harlem Renaissance was in full swing and Bearden absorbed the cultural influences of the era, informed by both the musical and visual arts. Bearden once said, “You sing on the canvas. You improvise—you find the rhythm and catch it good, and structure as you go along—then the song is you.” Although he loved New York, he yearned for the life he left behind as a toddler in the South and visited North Carolina often. Bearden was influenced by artistic styles as diverse as pre-Renaissance art and cubism. He was also influenced by the work of artists such as Johannes Vermeer and Rembrandt.

In 1963, Bearden co-founded Spiral, a collective of African-American artists (including Norman Lewis, Charles Alston, Hale Woodruff and others) dedicated to supporting the Civil Rights Movement. While it began in the early 1960s as overtly political in nature, it morphed into an organization dedicated to creating a “new visual order” based less on figurative work and more on abstraction. Eventually, Bearden would move into collage as his medium of choice, and the Black Odyssey was born. Bearden used collage as his chosen mode of expression for depicting African-American life. He reasoned that combining real imagery with abstract elements helped support the idea that there is not one archetype representing all African-Americans, but rather multiple traditions and communities that make up the whole.

In 1987, Congress awarded him the National Medal of Arts.

About the Exhibition

A Black Odyssey includes 55 works, most of which are Bearden’s signature work in collage. The Currier is the sixth of seven exhibition venues. After the Currier, it travels to New York City for presentation at Columbia University.

The exhibition begins at the end of The Iliad and continues chronologically in concordance with The Odyssey. An engaging audio tour featuring music and interpretation by Branford Marsalis and DJ Spooky is available for download for both iOS and Android devices, or is available on a Currier audio guide.

The center of the exhibition will feature a large interactive space with large fabric “sails” hanging vertically from the ceiling above, giving an appearance that is historically consistent with Greek sailing vessels of that era. A playlist of music that inspired Bearden's work will be available. A 15-minute biographical video will explore Bearden's life and work with a focus on the "Odyssey" series.

Consistent with the Currier’s ongoing efforts to offer opportunities for guests to share their individual interpretations, a response area allows viewers to reveal their own personal journeys. The interactive space also includes a reading area and an opportunity to create a collage using a free iTunes app for iPhone and iPad, "Romare Bearden: Black Odyssey Remixes." These collages can be uploaded and shared with viewers via the Internet.

Exploring Romare Bearden’s connections to the Currier Museum collection, a pop-up exhibition will open on May 24. Surprising recent research indicates that Bearden photoreproduced elements of a painting in the Currier collection by pre-Renaissance painter, The Follower of Meliore. Bearden used these in at least three of his collages. Images of the collages will be on display in this pop-up exhibition. This historic painting will be on view alongside reproductions of the Bearden collages in the Currier’s Modern Gallery. A recently acquired Bearden watercolor and collage, Train Whistle Blues (1979) and several works by artists Jacob Lawrence and Charles Alston, who all knew each other and captured the African-American experience in their work.

Publication

Romare Bearden: A Black Odyssey is a full-color, 116-page catalogue published by the DC Moore Gallery, New York, N.Y. (2008). The book is available from the Currier Museum of Art Museum Shop ($45, hardcover only).

Events

Currier After Hours! Sounds that Inspire: Music and Romare Bearden
Thursday, April 3, 6-9 p.m.
Join us for an opening celebration of the special exhibition Romare Bearden: A Black Odyssey. A jazz ensemble led by saxophonist Jonathan Lorentz will inspire you to create your own collage while enjoying 1920’s cocktails and specials from the Winter Garden Café. Explore the exhibition theme of the journey by watching several short documentaries by local filmmaker Dan Habib or by joining us for a 15-minute conversation in the exhibition. A cash bar and full menu are available at the WinterGarden Café.

Focus Tour: The Odyssey: The Cliffs Notes
Sunday, May 25, 11:30 a.m.
Take a docent led tour of the special exhibition, Romare Bearden: A Black Odyssey. Continue the conversation over lunch in the Winter Garden Café. Members $12, Non-Members $20 (price includes admission and lunch). Visit www.currier.org/tickets to purchase tickets.

Swappin’ Stories
Each of us is on a personal journey—why not share your’s? Swappin’ Stories is an exciting program modeled after NPR’s The Moth Radio Hour and offered in conjunction with the Currier Museum of Art’s exhibition, Romare Bearden: A Black Odyssey. This program is designed as a social gathering, offering an opportunity to meet new people, connect with friends and share experiences. If you have a story that you’d like to share please submit the application form by June 1, 2014 to submission@currier.org. Download an application at http://www.currier.org/media/swappin-stories-submissionform.pdf.

Family Summer Studio: Collage Explored
Wednesday, July 2, 9, 16, 23, and 30, 11 a.m. – 1 p.m.
Participate in a unique Family Studio art activity that explores the many possibilities of collage. Adults and children are welcome and encouraged to drop by one of the Museum’s studio spaces to participate.

Family Saturday: Community Collage
Saturday, May 10, 10 a.m. – 3 p.m.
Free admission for NH residents: 10 a.m. – noon
Contribute to a large collaborative collage that invites you to recreate a Manchester scene. Enjoy a guided family tour (11:30 a.m.). Visit the Discovery Gallery or use a family gallery guide.

Uprooted: Film and Discussion
Saturday, June 21, 3 p.m.
New Hampshire is home to many people who have been through epic journeys, including refugees from around the world. The Currier is screening Uprooted, a 30-minute documentary produced by the University of New Hamphire that tells the stories of five refugees who have been resettled in the state. Several community members will lead a post-film discussion exploring the definition of home, an important theme of Romare Bearden: A Black Odyssey. Prior to the film, join a 2 p.m. tour of the special exhibition.

Family Saturday: Create a Creature
Saturday, July 12, 10 a.m. – 1 p.m.
Participate in art activities, go on a guided family tour (11:30 a.m.), visit the Discovery Gallery or use a family gallery guide.

April Vacation Week Events
Free Admission Monday 4/28 – Friday 5/2 (Museum closed on Tuesday)

Storytime in the Gallery
Monday, April 28, 11:30 a.m. and 1 p.m.
Hear a reimagined version of the classic children’s song “This Old Man” while listening to a reading of The Jazz Man, by Karen Ehrhardt. Create your own take on an old favorite with words or drawings. All ages are welcome and admission is free.

Family Studio
Wednesday, April 30, 11 a.m. – 1 p.m.
Create your own mythical creature through collage. All ages are welcome and admission is free.

Dimensions in Dance Performance
Thursday, May 1, 1 – 1:30 p.m.
Dimensions in Dance of Manchester will perform original choreography inspired by the work of Romare Bearden. All ages are welcome and admission is free.

Stories Explored
Thursday, May 1, 11 a.m. – 1 p.m.
Let the art in the galleries inspire you to tell and illustrate your own story. All ages are welcome and admission is free.

Storyteller, Sebastian Lockwood
Friday, May 2, 1 p.m.
Join New Hampshire storyteller, Sebastian Lockwood, as he brings Homer’s Odyssey to life. Recommended for ages 7 and older, but all ages are welcome. Tickets for this event are $3 per person. Visit www.currier.org/tickets to purchase tickets.

Exhibition Support

This exhibition is organized by the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service in coordination 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 Currier's presentation of Romare Bearden: A Black Odyssey is sponsored by Hitchiner Manufacturing Co., Inc., with additional support from Optima Bank. Individual support from Dwight & Susi Churchill and Wilton Consulting Group, LLC.

General Information

The Currier Museum of Art, located at 150 Ash Street, Manchester, N.H., is open every day except Tuesday. It is home to an internationally respected collection of European and American paintings, decorative arts, photographs and sculpture, including works by Picasso, Matisse, Monet and O'Keeffe. Visitors of all ages will enjoy the engaging exhibitions, the dynamic programs ranging from art-making and lectures to music, a Museum Shop, and an airy, light-filled café. Free Wi-Fi is available throughout the Museum. The Currier welcomes visitors with disabilities and special needs. We are wheelchair accessible and offer FM headsets for sound amplification at all public programs. For more information, visit www.currier.org or call 603.669.6144, x108. The Currier Art Center, celebrating its 75th year of operations, offers studio classes, art camps, Master classes and intensive workshops for all ages. The Museum also owns the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Zimmerman House, complete with the original furnishings and the owners' fine art collection.