Past Exhibition

Romare Bearden: A Black Odyssey

Exhibition Dates: 
Saturday, October 13, 2012 - Sunday, January 13, 2013
Mary and Charlie Babcock Wing Gallery | View Gallery

In April 1977, at New York’s Cordier & Ekstrom gallery, the American modernist Romare Bearden (1911–1988) installed twenty vibrant, richly composed collages under the title Odysseus. The series was based on characters and episodes in Homer’s Greek epic The Odyssey—one of the foundational works of Western literature. Now, a new traveling exhibition reunites most of the 1977 series while expanding the scope of the original exhibition with watercolors, drawings, and prints. Romare Bearden: A Black Odyssey kicks off its national tour at Reynolda House Museum of American Art on October 13, 2012.

A Black Odyssey simultaneously expands our view of the Bearden canon and his influence as an artist while reinforcing Homer’s continuing relevance as a poet. To stress the universality of Homer's epic, Bearden made all of the Homeric gods, mortals, heroes, and villains black. This choice asserts that all viewers can relate to the central themes of the story—themes of longing, struggle, and perseverance.

Robert G. O’Meally, the Zora Neale Hurston Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University and curator of the exhibition, says, “Bearden not only staked a claim to the tales of ancient Greece as having modern relevance, he also made the claim of global cultural collage—that, as humans, we are all collages of our unique experiences. Indeed, Barden does not merely illustrate Homer—he is Homer’s true collaborator, and he invites us viewers to inherit Homer’s tale and interpret it as our own.”

The tale of the traveler's search for home was a theme that occupied Bearden, a transplant himself, over the long arc of his career. Born in Charlotte, North Carolina, in 1911, he moved with his family to Harlem as a young child, part of the Great Migration of African Americans from the South to greater opportunity in the North. In many guises and media, Bearden created images of travelers on their way to and from home.

Organized by the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service, the exhibition includes nearly fifty rarely-exhibited works. Beautiful and powerful, the works featured in the exhibition create a gripping narrative that is both accessible and complex, timeless and modern.