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"Romare Bearden: A Black Odyssey" opens at the Currier Museum of Art in New Hampshire
Romare Bearden, Battle with Cicones, collage, 1977. Courtesy Currier Museum of Art. 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 are being 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.

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

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.

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 features 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 is available. A 15-minute biographical video explores 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 photo-reproduced 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.

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