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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Circe is an enchantress who transforms Odysseus’s men into swine. Odysseus makes a deal with her: turn his men back into men, and he will stay with her for a year as her lover. She agrees, and after a year of feasting, Odysseus and his crew leave her.

“There are more images of Circe in the series than of any other figure from the epic, including Odysseus,” says O’Meally. “Here she’s depicted like an African queen, which could evoke the ‘conjure woman,’ a priestess who carried on West African traditions. I think Bearden loves her for her special allure, and also because she is so unpredictable in her powers.”


The Sirens' Song

Circe tells Odysseus that as he sails away from her island, he must bypass the beautiful but deadly Sirens, because any man that hears their song will die from its sweetness.

“Odysseus is so curious and so much in love with the world as we have it, the good and the bad, the enticing and the forbidding, that he wants to hear that song,” says O’Meally. “And so he has his men tie him to the mast of the ship. He makes them plug their own ears so they will not hear the song and be killed by it. Our love for him is increased, because he is so human, after all. He’s not so big and magnificent. He’s like us. This might be my favorite piece in the series. There’s just so much joy here.”

In 2007, the New York gallery DC Moore united for the first time Bearden’s Iliad and Odyssey series, as well as smaller, watercolor versions of the Odyssey collages. O’Meally, who had been teaching Homer for years as a part of Columbia’s Core Lit Hum classes, wrote the catalogue for the show. When a representative from the Smithsonian got the idea to turn it into a traveling exhibit, she turned to him to curate it.

“It was the most seamless thing in the world,” he says. “I was teaching Homer every morning and Bearden every afternoon. It felt like a confluence of everything.”

At Columbia, it was also an exciting time for the Wallach Gallery. After years on the eighth floor of Schermerhorn Hall, the gallery is preparing to move to the Lenfest Center for the Arts on the Manhattanville campus. Guiding that move is director and curator Deborah Cullen, who joined the Wallach Gallery in 2012 after sixteen years as curatorial director of El Museo del Bario in Harlem.

“We’re able to use the gallery as a classroom, both for Columbia students and for K-12 neighborhood school groups,” Cullen says. “As we prepare to expand and be more public-facing on the Manhattanville campus, this is definitely the direction we want our program to go in.”

Once the Wallach Gallery was established as the show’s final domestic stop, O’Meally started thinking about the larger implications for the University. This exhibit, he thought, brought to life a story that every Columbia College student was reading. Students were thinking about Homer in Lit Hum classes, about modernism in Art Hum, and about jazz in Music Hum; the exhibit was the embodiment of the Core Curriculum. He went to President Bollinger with the idea of creating additional programming around the exhibit, and Homer in Harlem was born.

Beginning with the Morningside Lights parade in September, the campus has been packed with events, lectures, screenings, concerts, and readings dedicated to exploring the themes that Bearden brings to life in his work. Rosanna Warren and Alice Oswald have done poetry readings inspired by the work. Families have gathered in the gallery to read Bearden-inspired children’s books. Scholars have convened for panel discussions on gender in Bearden and Homer, and on the meaning of the mythology. At one all-day symposium on improvisation, attendees were encouraged to bring instruments in the hopes of forming an experimental band.

Devyn Tyler ’13CC, an actress who has appeared in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008) and 12 Years a Slave (2013), is working with O’Meally on developing some of the campus programming, which will continue through the spring. In November, she took the lead coordinating a staged reading of The Odyssey, in which she performed with two other actors.

“It’s not a text that you really think of as being performed today,” she says, “but I was surprised at how powerful it was to read it out loud, with images of the Bearden works in the background. I’d read The Odyssey as a student at Columbia, of course, but Bearden really brought it to life for me.”

Tyler, who majored in French, first became acquainted with Bearden while studying abroad in Paris, where she took a class with O’Meally, who was then teaching at Columbia’s Global Center at Reid Hall. “It made such an impact that a group of us still gets together to talk about it two years later,” she says. “It’s exciting to see the rest of the campus joining the conversation.”

Events will continue on campus through the spring, with a film discussion featuring Bearden’s niece, Diedra Harris-Kelley, a string-quartet performance, several seminars and symposiums, a performance by Mike Ladd and Jean Grae, and a student-led staging of The Odyssey.

The Sea Nymph

Poseidon summons a storm that knocks Odysseus into the sea. Ino, a sea goddess, rescues him with a magical veil.

“Here’s the black woman again,” says O’Meally. “She’s the one that goes down when the black man is seeing nothing but deadly trouble and manages to gently bring him to the surface. There’s a kind of angel of salvation that’s presented by this voluptuous figure.

“The influences from Matisse’s cutouts are evident. It’s as if Bearden is saying, ‘I saw your series, and I’m not going to do anything like it. But I will honor it in this little way.’ I love the confidence with which Bearden uses his influences. He knows it looks like Matisse. But it’s not. It’s wholly Bearden.”


Home to Ithaca

In Homer’s story, Odysseus is fast asleep when his ship arrives home in Ithaca. But Bearden reimagines the scene as a moment of triumph, with Odysseus standing heroically at the ship’s bow.

Bearden believed that “The Odyssey” was an epic that embodied the African-American experience.

“I think it was important to him as a black painter to say that this story belongs as much to us as to everyone else,” says O’Meally. “Part of the reason that he chose 'The Odyssey' was that the story of the African-Americans’ journey from Africa through slavery toward freedom is as great an epic story as there is.”

After the Wallach show closes in March, the original artwork will go back to its owners. Meanwhile, a series of reproductions, along with six Bearden lithographs owned by Columbia, will have begun their own journey, heading abroad for exhibits at Columbia’s Global Centers in Paris and Istanbul, where each will be paired with other region-specific works. The Paris show, which opened on January 19, features reproductions of Henri Matisse’s Odysseus series, originally made to illustrate James Joyce’s Ulysses. The Istanbul exhibit, opening on April 15, will feature works by the Turkish artist Bedri Rahmi Eyuboglu.

“If you look around the exhibit, there are Christian crosses and references to the Hebrew Bible, and even one painting with an Islamic crescent. I think Bearden layers it in that way to make it clear that the home that he’s talking about is a global space. We wanted to celebrate that,” O’Meally says.

It’s likely that the exhibit will continue its tour, perhaps to Columbia’s Studio X in Johannesburg — O’Meally says that possibility is getting more certain every day — and even beyond. He has lofty dreams of taking it to the Columbia Global Center in Beijing, noting that Bearden was a master at lettering and once even studied with a Chinese calligrapher.

For the time being, though, Bearden has reached his Ithaca. And so has O’Meally.

“I had tears in my eyes the first time I saw the exhibit hanging here,” he says. “And when I saw schoolchildren with those beautiful lanterns. Bearden has said that all of us are on an odyssey. For me, that means making sure that our students and that people in our community think that Romare Bearden is someone to know about. If that happens, I’ll be the happiest man in New York.”

See upcoming Bearden events and more: http://www.magazine.columbia.edu/bearden


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