Romare Bearden, “Bayou Fever, The Conjur Woman” (1979), collage and acrylic on fiberboard, 6 x 9 inches, (all images © Estate of Romare Bearden, courtesy DC Moore Gallery, New York, unless otherwise noted)

The most fascinating aspect of collage for me is how dramatically it presents the narrative or figure it’s focused on. In the work of skillful collagists, like Hannah Hoch, Wangechi Mutu, and Henri Matisse, their reinvention of the figure is rendered in highly stylized terms so melodramatic that the characters that emerge read as mythic. I approach these artists’ work wide-eyed, expecting to be surprised. I have a similar expectation when I look at the work of Romare Bearden — visual historian of the American South, member of the Harlem Renaissance, soldier, songwriter, author, and artist activist — because he excels in these things that collagists can do.

Installation view of Romare Bearden: Bayou Fever & Related Works at DC Moore Gallery(photo by Sandra Paci)

Installation view of Romare Bearden: Bayou Fever & Related Works at DC Moore Gallery(photo by Sandra Paci)

One sees all of this in the current DC Moore Gallery show Romare Bearden: Bayou Fever and Related Works. In “Bayou Fever, Untitled (The Conjur Woman)” (1979) a woman warrior breathes fire against an approaching demon figure. The demon is an amalgam of geometrically patterned cloth, with a head crowned with spikes of paper. The woman is simply a brown body, naked, facing the creature while exhaling flame. This image likely has to do with Bearden’s exploration of Obeah, a religious practice originating in Ghana and found in the Caribbean, and of Hoodoo, the complementary practice found in the United States. In Bearden’s hands, the characters of this collage, like other prominent ones in the show, including the Swamp Witch and the Hatchet Man, become part of a pantheon, a great mythological scheme particular only to the black American South.

Romare Bearden, “Bayou Fever, All Come Back” (1979), collage and acrylic on fiberboard, 4 1/2 x 10 1/2 inches

The idea behind the Bayou Fever series of 21 collages from 1979 (shown here for the first time in public) was to make a ballet, choreographed by Alvin Ailey, with Bearden’s work providing the main characters and settings of the performance. The artist had an interest in dance, perhaps developed through his wife who had her own company, the Nanette Bearden Contemporary Dance Theater.

Romare Bearden, “Morning Ablutions” (1975), collage with acrylic on board, 12 1/2 x 16 inches

The exhibition also includes about 30 additional artworks chosen to extend the imagery and themes of the Bayou Fever series. Altogether one gets to experience paintings and collages of propulsive color, unconventional figuration, and consistent visual surprise. Though this work was never fully realized, it can never die.

Romare Bearden: Bayou Fever and Related Works continues at DC Moore Gallery (535 West 22nd Street, 2nd Floor, Chelsea, Manhattan) through April 29.

Seph Rodney, PhD, is a former senior critic and Opinion Editor for Hyperallergic, and is now a regular contributor to it and the New York Times. In 2020, he won the Rabkin Arts Journalism prize and in...

One reply on “Romare Bearden’s Mythic Collages, Rooted in the American South”

  1. Seph,

    I am not sure if your background is in fine arts but your intro line about collage being able to dramatically present the narrative or figure and that the figure is “mythic” is, how can I put this politely, based on exactly nothing.

    It is simply obvious that good collage, painting, sculpture, writing, music etc. can produce drama and “mythic” if it so chooses to, and in the hands of an unskilled person it simply won’t make the grade.

    Your position that collage has these inherent qualities is simply off the mark. If you feel an individual has done these things, then fine; make the case.

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