FEATURE

A Man of Twists and Turns

One Greek poet. One African-American artist. One intrepid professor. How Robert O’Meally brought Romare Bearden back to Harlem.

by Rebecca Shapiro Published Winter 2014-15
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Photograph by Victoria Hely-Hutchinson

The gods came down from Olympus in a line, nearly a thousand strong: Athena with an Afro, Poseidon as a dragonfish, Circe and the Cyclopes. Each was a burst of color in the darkness — vibrant blues, greens, yellows, and reds, painted on crackling paper and mounted on a boxy frame, illuminated from the inside. They were carried by students, professors, parents, and children, making a spectacular parade as they marched from Morningside Park through College Walk on a warm Saturday night last September.

For many participating in the third annual Morningside Lights festival, that evening was a culmination. They’d spent hours over the course of a week spread out on the stage of Miller Theatre, constructing the lanterns in an experiment in collective art-making. Schoolchildren came in class groups; undergraduates stopped by between classes; faculty and community members brought their families. In a creative game of telephone, people started projects and then handed them off to the next group when they left, with notes that said, “Hi. Can you please transform me into a dragonfish?” or “Please finish this in rainbow colors. Extras: Has a monocle; also a moustache.”

But this year, the parade was also a beginning. Called Odysseus on the A Train, it marked the first official campus event in Homer in Harlem, a yearlong series of concerts, films, readings, symposiums, and classes honoring Harlem artist Romare Bearden. As a campus-wide programmatic focus, it is nearly unprecedented. And at its center is one remarkable art exhibit.

Romare Bearden: A Black Odyssey brings together the artist’s 1977 series of collages and watercolors based on Homer’s great epic. Six weeks after the parade, the exhibit opened at Columbia’s Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Art Gallery. Like Odysseus, the works had been on their own long journey, touring the country for the last two years as a part of a Smithsonian Institution traveling exhibition — Winston-Salem, North Carolina; Memphis, Tennessee; Fort Worth, Texas; Madison, Wisconsin; Atlanta, Georgia; Manchester, New Hampshire; and finally the Wallach Gallery in New York, on the edge of Bearden’s beloved Harlem.

For Robert O’Meally, Columbia’s Zora Neale Hurston Professor of English and Comparative Literature, the founder of its Center for Jazz Studies, and the curator of the Smithsonian’s A Black Odyssey, this was more than just the final stop on a museum tour. As he wound his way through Harlem, up Amsterdam Avenue and onto College Walk, he gazed at the procession and smiled.
“Finally,” he thought, “they’re coming home.”

 

“Sing to me of the man, muse," begins Homer’s Odyssey in Robert Fagles’s translation, “the man of twists and turns.” This phrase — in the Greek, polytropos — is Homer’s first description of the hero Odysseus. It alludes to his wayward journey home, delayed by battles and vengeful gods. But it also sums up his character: complex and changeable.

“He was a shape shifter,” O’Meally says, “and that’s something that Bearden could relate to. The range of his interests and his influences was just incredible.”

Born in North Carolina and raised in Harlem, Bearden was a cartoonist, a social worker, a writer, an activist, and a prolific painter and collagist. He drew inspiration from Western masters like Matisse and Picasso, but also from African sculpture and masks, and from Byzantine mosaics, Japanese prints, and Chinese calligraphy. His bright collages, watercolors, oils, and photomontages layered together history, literature, music, and many other art forms.

“I once met an art-history professor who said that she could teach an entire survey course just from the influences in Bearden’s paintings,” O’Meally says.

O’Meally was a graduate student at Harvard in the early 1970s, working on a dissertation on Ralph Ellison, when he first met Bearden, and the artist has fascinated him and been a focus of his research ever since. An amateur saxophonist who founded Columbia’s Center for Jazz Studies, O’Meally was drawn to Bearden’s colorful, jazz-inspired collages, some depicting musicians or musical instruments, and others more abstractly embodying the music’s rhythm and spirit of improvisation.

Battle with Cicones

On their way home from Troy, Odysseus and his men take a detour to attack Ismarus, the city of the tribe of the Cicones. They’re enjoying their spoils when Ciconian reinforcements arrive and drive Odysseus and his men back to their ships.

“One of them seems to be in a Native American headdress. What does that mean?” asks O’Meally. “Bearden is making us wonder about questions of race and of nation, of colonial exploitation and of leadership. Homer lets us know here that Odysseus is flawed, just like the rest of us. He’s heroic in so many ways. He’s a terrific athlete, he’s a wonderful storyteller. He’s a military strategist. He’s a fanciful lover, with goddesses fighting over him. And yet he’s impulsive and foolish.”  / Art Courtesy of Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Art Gallery

Poseidon, the Sea God

Poseidon is Odysseus’s great enemy. After Odysseus gouges out the eye of Poseidon’s son, Poseidon is enraged and vows to keep Odysseus away from the seas for ten years.

“Bearden is as concerned about family as he is about heroism and war,” says O’Meally. “Why is Poseidon angry? Because Odysseus put his son’s eye out. Let’s put it in context. This is 1977. African-American children have been mistreated. Bearden seized on the idea that there’s a black father that’s mad about the mistreatment of his family. I think that’s what gives part of the force and the fierceness to this particular image.”

 

“Bearden said you have to begin somewhere. So you put something down, and then you put something else with it. Once you get going, all sorts of possibilities open up, and things fall into place like fingers on piano keys,” O’Meally says.

In 1977, Bearden made a series of twenty collages based on Homer’s Odyssey. Many of the artist’s fans saw this as a thematic departure: at the time, Bearden’s best-known works were street and music scenes. But it wasn’t his first time illustrating the classics: in the 1940s, when he was only in his thirties, Bearden completed a series of pen-and-ink drawings based on The Iliad, Homer’s epic poem of the Trojan War.

“Bearden was stationed in New York City during World War II, and it was clear that this was on his mind when he was making these drawings. The brutality of war is just so evident,” O’Meally says. “It’s a story that tears you apart, because you’re rooting for the heroes and then you realize that the heroes are bloodthirsty and they’re killing the people and destroying the ones that we also love. It’s a great tragic epic.”

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