Romare Bearden, “Baptism, 28/50” (1975), serigraph on aper, 32 x 45 inches (image); 36 1/2 x 49 inches (paper), edition of 50 (all images © Estate of Romare Bearden, courtesy DC Moore Gallery, New York)

Shortly after he returned to Cuba from Marseille, France, Wifredo Lam painted “The Jungle” (1943). During his voyage, Lam was detained in Martinique, where he met the Martinican poet Aimé Césaire, who had recently published Cahier d’un retour au pays natal (Notebook of a Return to the Native Land, 1939), a cacophonous mixture of prose and poetry that addresses issues of cultural identity for black Africans living in a colonial society. In “The Jungle,” inspired by Césaire’s thinking and writing, Lam re-appropriated Yoruban and other African gods that Pablo Picasso first appropriated years earlier, starting with “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon” (1907). Lam’s re-appropriation — his act of taking back what had been taken from him — is central to an understanding of the history of Black art in the Americas.

Romare Bearden, “Obeah Woman” (1984-86), watercolor on paper, 29 1/4 x 21 5/8 inches

Romare Bearden is a key figure in this alternative tradition of American art. The exhibition Romare Bearden: Bayou Fever & Related Works at DC Moore (March 23 – April 29, 2017), contains twenty-one collage panels of the Bayou Fever series, which have never been exhibited before in New York, that Bearden conceived for a ballet in 1979, hoping that it would be choreographed by Alvin Ailey, with whom he had worked before, when he created a backdrop for the ballet Ancestral Voices.

In addition to the Bayou Fever collages — all of which measure around six by nine inches — there are more than thirty other works, ranging from large watercolors to unique hand-colored etchings, to collages made from Photostats of photographs — a heady visual feast for the mind and eye.

Bearden’s Bayou Fever consists of twenty-one storyboards, beginning with the setting and followed by the presentation of the characters in the order of appearance: the landscape of the Louisiana bayou; the house where the family (father, mother, and newborn child) lives; and the various mythic figures— including the artist’s “Conjur Woman” and “Herb Woman” — that pay a visit, not always with good intentions in the mind. It is clear from the collages that Bearden thought about everything: from settings to characters to costumes and music.

Bearden uses collage, watercolor, acrylic, ink, pencil, glitter, and foil in these small, jam-packed, fully realized works. By evoking these and other figures, Bearden  presents a self-contained world far removed from the Judeo-Christian ethos, or what can also be called white mainstream culture.

Romare Bearden, “Green Times Remember – Recollections Pool” (1970), collage with acrylic on paper, 17 1/2 x 24 inches

The hothouse palette, domestic scenes, and mythic figures are motifs Bearden touched upon throughout his life. Like Lam, Bearden employed modernist techniques — collage and other mediums associated with Dada — as a means of constructing figures from Haitian Vodou and African-Caribbean culture, and in doing so he re-appropriated the African masks, costumes, and sculptures that Hannah Hoch used in her series From An Ethnographic Museum.

I think we should not underestimate what is at stake in Bearden’s gesture, and the way he made collage about black lives and culture. The Bayou Fever series constitutes a major body of work; it was done in the late 1970s, when the art world’s attention was elsewhere, as it was throughout much of Bearden’s career.

Romare Bearden, “Prevalence of Ritual/Conjur Woman as an Angel” (1964), gelatin silver print (photostat) mounted on fiberboard, 38 1/4 x 26 1/4 inches, edition of 6 (edition unrealized)

Derived from memory, Bearden’s bayou is at once real and mythic, the Black counterpart to William Faulkner’s apocryphal Yoknapatawpha County. Bearden infuses his landscape with a vision of strong women, a sense of family, and long-held traditions originating in Africa. It is a world that may have existed in or near Yoknapatawpha County, but Faulker would have had little or no access to it. The people who live in the bayou exist apart from white society and, for all their troubles, live without fear from their oppressors.

In three hand-colored photo etchings from the series  12 Train – Heavy Freight  (1974), we see large heads in the foreground, staring out at the viewer. Their expressions are strong and directed, furious and calm. In the background, framed between the buildings, there is the image of a train. The space is cramped, with everything pressed together. In this and other works, Bearden links modernist composition (or cubist space) to social conditions, essentially going in the opposite direction of those who believed that form was all and content was secondary or extraneous, a privileged position.

One work that seems unusual in Bearden’s oeuvre, and, to my thinking makes it all the more complex and interesting, is the collage, “Dream Images” (1976). A black woman in the foreground stretches out on a patterned bedspread, one knee up, her arms above her head: she is in a state of erotic languor. On the wall above her, and further back in space, is a collage element of a “framed image” featuring the lower part of a nude male torso, with the genitals prominently displayed. Just when you think you know Bearden’s work, he surprises you – which means you should look closer and rethink your assumptions.

Romare Bearden, “Dream Images” (1976)

Bearden started making collages in 1964, after having painted in the modes of Socialist Realism and Abstract Expressionism. He was in his mid-fifties. We can never know when an artist will make a move that changes how we look at his or her work. Bearden’s explorations of inexpensive materials in a  medium that some consider minor is a challenge to those who believe in aesthetic hierarchies and other means of maintaining the narrative. His challenge to that kind of thinking is a beautiful and inspiring thing to experience.

Romare Bearden: Bayou Fever & Related Works continues at DC Moore (535 West 22nd Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) through April 29.

John Yau has published books of poetry, fiction, and criticism. His latest poetry publications include a book of poems, Further Adventures in Monochrome (Copper Canyon Press, 2012), and the chapbook, Egyptian...