Njideka Akunyili received a package from the Studio Museum in August, containing two sheets of 22 by 30 inch paper and one instruction: Create a collage in homage to Romare Bearden, Harlem’s iconic visual artist.
Akunyili accepted the invitation unhesitantly. As a graduate student at Yale, she had studied Bearden’s work, admiring how he conjured cohesive spaces through disparate images and colors. To prepare for the commission, she boarded a train to New Haven and spent a day scrutinizing Yale’s Bearden collection.
She returned to her cluttered studio on 125th Street (as a museum artist in residence, she works above the galleries) knowing she wanted to adapt Bearden’s palate of saturated primary colors. But two weeks before the deadline, her pages remained blank.
Akunyili, 28, finally drew two central figures, representing herself and her husband, Justin, dancing in an imaginary nightclub. She gathered family photographs from her wedding in Nigeria and searched the Internet for images by her favorite Malian photographer, Malick Sidibe, (Bearden often referred to fellow artists in his work).
She scanned the fragments and Xerox-transferred them onto the large page, cut the two figures out and moved them about like jigsaw pieces, submitting the work just before deadline.
Now Akunyili’s “Efulefu: The Lost One” hangs on the Studio Museum wall, surrounded by The Bearden Project’s 43 other components. September marked the centennial of Romare Bearden’s birth and curator Lauren Haynes decided that a special tribute was in order for this member of her museum’s founding council. “Instead of putting up all the Beardens from our collection,” Haynes said, “we thought it would be interesting to engage artists we work with, though the idea of collage.”
The artists’ interpretations are various. Matriarch (the mother-daughter team of Maren and Ava Hassinger) constructed a tower from boxes, shells and feathers. Nadine Robinson produced an audio montage, with only its URL address on display. Kori Newkirk’s untitled instillation consists of tin cans spilling glitter onto the museum floor.
Stacy Lynn Waddell branded and singed her two sheets of paper and painted a tropical watercolor embellished with Austrian crystals. Xaviera Simmons photographed two side-by-side figures, their faces obscured by Nina Simone and Malcom X LP’s. On the opposite wall, Bearden’s 1964 work “Conjur Woman” watches over these tributes.
In fact, the project constitutes a ramshackle collage itself. Haynes and her team will keep adding works and rearrange existing exhibits until they reach the target of 100 pieces before the exhibition closes in March.
It’s just one of many centennial tributes to Bearden. The Postal Service commissioned four Bearden stamps. His works are on exhibit in galleries from Kansas City to Cambridge, Mass. But Harlem, fittingly, is the epicenter of the festivities.
Although he was born in North Carolina, Romare Bearden grew up in Harlem. His mother’s West 131st Street apartment, not far from the Studio Museum, became a salon attracting family friends like Duke Ellington and Fats Waller.
A social worker by day, Bearden spent evenings painting in a 125th Street studio above the Apollo Theatre; fellow artist Jacob Lawrence worked on another floor. After serving in World War II, Bearden studied at the Sorbonne in Paris and met Georges Braque.
- He began producing collages upon his return to New York. “The Block,” his most famous work, now on display at Metropolitan Museum of Art, depicts a vibrant Harlem neighborhood over six panels of metallic papers, photostats, pencil, ink, gouache and watercolor. By the time Bearden died in 1988, after a retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art, he was regarded as one of America’s most prolific and celebrated black artists.
To Sherman Edmiston, owner of the Essie Green Galleries in Sugar Hill, Bearden was a companion. “Romie was phenomenal, truly a renaissance man,” he said, sitting in his gallery, eyes closed, smiling fondly. “He was a black historian that had very few equals.”
Bearden excelled at science, contemplated becoming a doctor and could even have played professional baseball, said his friend. “Today most people think being hip means knowing the slang, the music, the dance steps and how to dress,” he said. But in Bearden’s Harlem, “you had to know poetry, literature, history. You had to be well-read, because to be hip meant you had to know shit.”
Edmiston, a former engineer, founded the Park Plaza Gallery in Park Slope, Brooklyn, in 1976 with his late wife, Essie Green, to champion “black masterworks.” As aspiring collectors, they were unsure how to contact Bearden. ‘All we could think of was to look in the phone book,” said Edminston. “And there it was: Romare Bearden. Canal Street.”
They met and grew close. “He didn’t see us as art dealers and collectors, but as people he felt something for.” When Edmiston and Green bought their Convent Avenue brownstone, around the time of Bearden’s death, they opened the Essie Green Galleries in their basement, known colloquially as the Bearden Gallery for its frequent Bearden exhibitions.
Edmiston’s current show, “Bearden The Painter,” presents an unusual view: Bearden’s late watercolors. “People tend to pigeonhole Romie as a collagist, always talking about jazz,” said Edminston. “It’s so much more than that.”
Many of the paintings hanging on Essie Green’s purple walls are set on St. Martin, the Caribbean island where Bearden and his wife Nanette, a choreographer, spent part of each year. The effects of Bearden’s collages are evident in his final watercolors. “All the time he spent with collage, photo montage and oils sublimated into this later work, which had it all,” said Edmiston, whose favorite painting hangs opposite his desk. Gazing at “Coconut Grove,” with its foliage-rich saturated greens, is “like looking through a kaleidoscope.”
Bearden’s sparse final paintings, “Autumn 1” and “Autumn 2” are on exhibit at the Schomburg Center’s “The Soul of Blackness” exhibition. which presents a chronological view of his career. Beginning with his first collages, the circular layout encompasses theatrical posters, a textile and a commission for the Schomburg’s 50th anniversary.
Bearden often worked in the library there, said Chris Moore, one of the show’s curators. “The founders and participants of the Schomburg lived through an era when black and African things were totally separated,” he said. “Academics and intellectuals fought against that. It became their life battle. Romare Bearden is an artist but he’s also a warrior, bringing to attention the talents and contributions of African people.”
The Schomburg regularly holds childrens’ workshops. “You can come here at five years of age and find something engaging,” Moore said, adding that young audiences “are as much in awe of his work as adults are.”
The Romare Bearden Foundation also focuses on children, supplying educational materials and lobbying for his inclusion in school curriculums for 8- to 12-year-olds.
The foundation, established in 1990 with offices on 125th Street, houses Bearden’s personal library and extensive catalogues of his work. It organizes annual symposiums, oversees licensing and strives to raise Bearden’s profile – a challenging feat – says co-director Diedra Harris-Kelley.
“We do these retrospectives,” she said, “Everyone comes out and says it’s great but it’s not trickling down. It’s just simply not enough.” She hopes the centennial’s sustained spotlight will cement his status as an American master and encourage editors to include him in influential art compendiums. Bearden remains relatively unknown outside the States, something the Foundation also hopes to rectify.
Harris-Kelley, who is Bearden’s niece, is driven by fond memories of visiting her uncle’s Canal Street studio as a child. “He was always happy to see company,” she said, describing how he’d entertain friends in his loft space.
Like his collages, his creative process was somewhat fragmentary. “He’d be telling some story or other,” said Harris-Kelley. “Or showing off art. Or making spaghetti.”
Bearden’s Centennial in Harlem:
The Studio Museum
44 West 125th Street
“The Bearden Project”: multimedia collages by contemporary artists inspired by Bearden. Until March 11th
The Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture
515 Malcolm X Boulevard
“Romare Bearden: The Soul of Blackness / A Centennial Tribute”: paintings, collages, prints, posters and textiles spanning Bearden’s career. Until January 7th.
Essie Green Galleries
419A Convent Avenue,
“Bearden The Painter”: watercolors from the artist’s late career. Continuing.
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