Romare Bearden’s work depicting the epic story of Odysseus’ journey home are making a homecoming of their own.
Reynolda House Museum of Modern Art is hosting the national opening of the North Carolina native’s “Romare Bearden: A Black Odyssey.”
The exhibit opened Saturday and will be on display through Jan. 13. It features nearly 50 works by artist, including some of his drawings of “The Iliad” from the 1940s and collages and watercolors of “The Odyssey” from the 1970s.
Many of the “Odyssey” works were on display in New York for only one show before being scattered among collectors who bought them. The exhibit, organized by the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service, is the first time all these works have been displayed together.
Bearden, known for his depictions of black urban and rural southern life, was drawn to the universality of Homer’s epics, which depict Odysseus’ journey home to his family after the Trojan War.
“I feel that what struck me about the Odyssey is that all of us, from the time we begin to think, are on an odyssey,” Bearden said in a 1980 interview.
Bearden depicts all the characters in the epics, both gods and mortals, as black.
“By making all the characters in the epic black, he reminds us that the black American experience is also a universal American experience,” said exhibit curator Robert O’Meally, a compartive literature professor at Columbia University. “He reminds us that black people are concerned about raising their children, papa going away and staying too long, and mama at home trying to keep the homestead together.”
Bearden, who died in 1988, was himself constantly traveling home, said O’Meally. Born in 1911 in Charlotte, his family moved North in 1914 and settled in New York. Bearden regularly visited his grandparents in Mecklenburg County. The sights and sounds of the South would stay with him and were often found in his art.
“He always said while he became a New Yorker, he never left North Carolina,” said O’Meally. “It was always a kind of dreamscape for him, and a reference for him as a place that was really home in his imagination.”
But the South wasn’t all dreamscape. His parents moved North to find work, but also because his father grew weary of racism.
“When he, the father, would walk downtown with Romare … Romare was so light-skinned and his father so brown, sometimes whites would interfere with him and accuse the father of going someplace with a white kid without permission,” said O’Meally.
Bearden’s mother was the New York editor for the Chicago Defender, an award-winning black newspaper, and became the first black woman elected to a New York City are School Board. His father worked in social services. Before he became a full-time artist, Bearden worked as a social worker from the mid-1930s through the 1960s and did his artwork at night.
Reynolda House officials have partnered with other agencies to make “Black Odyssey” more than just an exhibit. A slew of related community activities highlighting African-American culture and the Great Migration, when African Americans, like Bearden’s family, moved North, are planned. Veterans’ issues will also be highlighted since Bearden, like Odysseus, was a veteran, having served in World War II. Reynolda House Director of Public Programs Phil Archer said the community has been very receptive to the effort.
“I’ve never had an exhibition where every single group I’ve approached has embraced the idea of working with the exhibition.” said Archer. “It’s inspiring that so many people find meaning in this show before it even opens.”
Archer said the Museum is hoping to reach a diverse audience with “Black Odyssey” that will not only be interested in Bearden but also in what else Reynolda House has to offer.
“We don’t want to bring in temporary exhibitions from New York or Washington of interest to African American viewers and only see those people during those temporary exhibitions,” said Archer. “We want people to come to love the House and the permanent collection, which tells the American story, all of our American stories, from over three centuries.
Events related to “Black Odyssey” include:
• Oct. 21, 3 p.m.– Isabel Wilkerson, author of “The Warmth of Other Suns,” this year’s Forsyth County Library’s On the Same Page book, will speak about the Great Migration at the Museum. The event is free to the public.
• Oct. 27, 1–6 p.m– “The Global Homer: Odyssey in the Context of Diaspora,” an academic forum with O’Meally and other scholars at Reynolda House. Admission is $40.
Reynolda House, 2250 Reynolda Road, is open Tuesday – Saturday from 9:30 a.m. – 4:30 p.m. and Sunday from 1:30 – 4:30 p.m. Admission is $10 for adults. For more information or a full schedule of “Black Odyssey” events, visit http://www.reynoldahouse.org” www.reynoldahouse.org.