At the Studio Museum in Harlem the exhibition The Bearden Project sets out to honor the late artist Romare Bearden (1911-1988) by presenting works by contemporary artists inspired or influenced by him. Besides the connection to Bearden, the works differ in medium, intent, and even their relationship to Bearden. Some works being shown were even created specifically for the show.
With a style that has been described as a synthesis of Dada photomontage, southern folk traditions and African art, Bearden’s artwork, especially his collages, are an extensive well for contemporary artists to draw from.
Romare Bearden spent the greater part of his youth in New York during the Harlem Renaissance. After fighting in WWII, attending the Sorbonne to study philosophy, and experiencing the embryonic stages of the Civil Rights Movement, Bearden decided upon collage as his medium of choice. Partaking of Western motifs and African forms, materials, and colors, he focused his art on the crossroads of the African American/Black experience within the United States and the ways in which the Civil Rights Movement was changing not only contemporary society, but his art as well.
While the museum states that The Bearden Project has only just begun, it is clear that, at least for now, the unifying feature of the exhibit is the role of collage within the works being displayed. A few prominent examples are Njideka Akunyili’s Efulefu: The Lost One (2011), Dave McKenzie’s They Dreamed of Nefertiti’s Holiday (2011), and Glenn Ligon’s Pittsburgh Memories Redux (2011).
In Akunyili’s Efulefu: The Lost One, the viewer is confronted by a large vertical composition of human figures dancing. The central couple appears to be an interracial one. Done entirely as a combination of collage materials (photographs, paper, etc.) and painted forms, the artist makes the interesting choice of defining Caucasians through negative space, demarcating the white man of the interracial dance couple as almost completely devoid of color. This is juxtaposed by the vibrant colors of the other African figures and background of the piece. Akunyili uses a series of photos that display the same man and various Nigerian women, to create image-plastered floors, walls, and even clothing. Inspired by his life in Nigeria and Bearden’s ability to distill the communal mood of the Harlem Renaissance, Akunyili attempts to capture his experiential journey through self-portraits, like this one, and the constant duality of his Nigerian past within his current daily life.
Dave McKenzie’s They Dreamed of Nefertiti’s Holiday is less visually complex than Akunyili’s piece, in that McKenzie only uses images pasted onto the canvas. His composition is also far more abstract, with disparate images of the Ancient Egyptian Queen Nefertiti’s death mask being touched, held onto, and grasped at by bodiless arms and hands. Other extraneous images of a bird, a hat, and miscellaneous others are interwoven into the visual fabric of the piece, incorporating their forms into the dialectical discourse of the composition's opposing features. The stark white canvas pushes these images forward, confronting the viewer head on with this discussion. McKenzie describes his inspirational journey, imparted to him through Bearden’s work, as one in which future generations find themselves interacting with art that welcomes them into their heritage and cultural past.
Glenn Ligon’s work, Pittsburgh Memories Redux, like McKenzie’s is also a collage, but Ligon goes further in his use of abstraction. No white part of the canvas shows, all is plastered by disparate images, and few complete forms are left intact within the cutout pieces used. Graphic chaos ensues within Ligon’s composition, leaving viewers with small glimpses and faint glances of an incomprehensible world. Driven to create new images from preexisting ones like Bearden, Ligon incorporated one of Bearden’s images into this collage of cut-up newspapers to create an “image of an image made of images.” He is quick to point out that his images end up far more “quotidian” than any of Bearden’s, but that the relevance of this omission lies within the nature of contemporary life's visual inundation.
For a relatively small exhibit, the Bearden Project does a lot with very little. It provides a forum on both Romare Bearden’s artwork and messages, and the ways in which they still influence a great many artists today. Since President Obama’s inauguration, it has become clear that America is still extremely divided over the issue of race. The artwork within The Bearden Project confronts issues of racism, both past and present, in subtle ways that create openings for empathy instead of outlets for antipathy. For while much of the artwork confronts the tragedies of the past, none of them appear to be inciting rage, prejudice, or violence as answers in response. And while there is always the chance that a visitor might be unmoved aesthetically by the objects on view, this exhibit nevertheless offers a dialogue about inequality and injustice that is still relevant to the world we live in.