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Reflecting on Our Odysseys: Bearden at the Wallach

Published on
November 25

Almost four months ago, in the heat of summer weeks before this busy semester began, I visited some of my best friends in New Hampshire, which was my home for two years before moving to the city. We visited the Currier Art Museum, which was featuring a traveling exhibit called Romare Bearden: A Black Odyssey. I had never heard of Romare Bearden before, and while I read an abridged version of the Odyssey back in high school, I was far from an expert. But I enjoyed the exhibit very much: Bearden's colorful collages, his inventive twists on the original tale, his message that "all of us, from the time we begin to think, are on an odyssey." Thinking back to that warm summer New Hampshire day now, bundled up in frigid New York, it is incredible how much has changed since then. My own odyssey has taken me to many wonderful, challenging, and unexpected places these past four months. And ironically, Romare Bearden and his art have played a far larger role in it than I anticipated when I casually happened upon the exhibit in New Hampshire, from his influence in this year's Morningside Lights, Odysseus on the A Train, to all of the Romare Bearden events happening on campus this semester. Now, having the opportunity to experience this incredible exhibit again at Columbia University's Wallach Art Gallery, after an eventful semester in my new home, it takes on an even more powerful and personal meaning for me.

This is just a glimpse into my own personal odyssey, but what is so powerful about Bearden's work is that it can connect to so many different journeys. Bearden depicts all of the characters in the Odyssey as black, but also references a great deal of other cultures, including the bold colors of Matisse, Chinese calligraphy, and Renaissance artists from Europe. A collage depicting Odysseus's return home to Penelope perfectly mirrors a painting from hundreds of years earlier by Rembrandt. Each collage is so detailed, and so rich with meaning. Why do the Cicones appear to be wearing Native American headdresses? Does the Fall of Troy have any connection to the Harlem race riots? There is no one way to read these works, and each of us will lend a different interpretation, creating yet another variation on a theme. Bearden makes his art the way a jazz musician does - he improvises on a melody, creating a new and original take on a familiar theme. One important variation Bearden makes is portraying Odysseus standing heroically on his ship when he finally returns home to Troy. In Homer's original version, Odysseus is asleep when he arrives home. Bearden deliberately chooses to make this return a triumphant one for Odysseus, and for everyone he represents. This exhibit includes works from Black Odyssey in both their large scale collage form and in small watercolor form. Each version appeals in different ways: while the large collages are more imposing and technically astounding (it's incredible to think that Bearden cut each and every object out with a pair of scissors), the smaller water colors display a more nuanced color palate. 

I cannot recommend this exhibit highly enough, and we are very fortunate to have the opportunity to view it right on our own campus. All of us at Columbia are on our own very different odysseys - some of us are brand new freshmen still figuring out what to major in, some of us are seniors preparing to graduate, some of us are graduate students with full time jobs and families of our own. But wherever you are on your journey, it is important to take a moment to reflect on where you're going, how you're going to get there, and the many places you've stopped on the way.