Glenda Gilmore's Bio Shows Artist Romare Bearden Reckoning with the SouthHistorians in the News
tags: African American history, Southern history, art, art history, Black Arts Movement
In his monumental collage series Projections (1964), American artist Romare Bearden encapsulated a century of African-American strife. Builders, matriarchs, and blues guitarists coalesce in lyrical street scenes, juxtaposing their dilapidated homes with the sleek urban landmarks they helped construct. Bearden charted the transition from chattel to wage slavery, drawing loosely from his experience growing up in the Deep South, interviewing migrant workers, and organizing against white supremacy.
In a recent biography, Romare Bearden in the Homeland of His Imagination: An Artist’s Reckoning with the South, historian Glenda Gilmore recounts the centrality of labor to the artist’s life story. Gilmore posits that many of Bearden’s best-known works, such as The Cotton Pickers (1941) and his dynamic Profile series, emerged not just from his working-class upbringing in North Carolina, but from his experience as a social worker in New York and as a black modernist during the civil rights era. Gilmore sets a timeline, critiques some striking artworks, and leaves the reader wondering why hardly anyone writes about art this succinctly.
“As an artist, Bearden explored time’s circularity, revisiting, reimagining, and reinventing the past,” Gilmore writes. Working with clipped newspapers, magazines, drawings, and other detritus, Bearden redefined how the human body could look across a flat plane, designing scenes of love and solidarity that blend the spirit of Dada with the Harlem Renaissance.
Bearden’s great-grandfather Henry Kennedy was likely born into slavery but became a railroad worker after emancipation, eventually saving enough to open a small grocery in Charlotte, North Carolina. Bearden’s childhood was defined by financial struggles as his family tried in vain to uphold the business during segregation. They fled north just before young Romy’s fifth birthday.
Gilmore’s central thesis is that Bearden remained transfixed on the Reconstruction South throughout his career. Early on, she points to elements of Charleston’s landscapes, such as the train that ran behind Kennedy’s house in Watching the Good Trains Go By (1964), which hearkens to the freewheeling dreams of migration. As Gilmore writes, “Visual recall, a part of memory, rarely flows smoothly in the channels that words excavate.” The anonymous subjects in this “parable” thus represent the historical flight of freed slaves, created at a time when black people in America were again fighting back.
This nonlinear narrative allows Gilmore to dip back and forth across Bearden’s many stylistic shifts. The Bearden family’s migration to Pittsburgh, for example, exposed a teenage Romare to the precarious conditions men faced in an ostensibly better social environment. “These are the hard men of Pittsburgh,” Gilmore writes of his mixed-media collage, Return of the Prodigal Son (1967), which renders rusted portraits in a colorful expressionist composition.
Bearden did indeed know these men well, as he worked alongside them at steel factories and lived with them in his family’s boardinghouse. The photorealistic expression of the “Prodigal Son” in work clothes, who gazes directly at the viewer, contrasts with the more Cubist renderings of family members around him. Gilmore notes that his family church was routinely attacked by white supremacists, making this spiritualized scene feel like a negotiation of personal trauma and European modernism.