Romare Bearden: Bayou Fever and Related Worksby Jessica Holmes
DC Moore Gallery | March 23 - April 29, 2017
For the artist Romare Bearden—born in 1911 in Mecklenburg County, North Carolina—the American South always loomed large. His parents, driven north to Harlem during the Great Migration three years after his birth, quickly established themselves among the burgeoning black intelligentsia. Though Bearden remained an established New Yorker, annual childhood summer trips to visit grandparents who remained below the Mason-Dixon line supplied provocative fodder for his imagination and nourished a lifelong connection to the South.
Bearden’s sustained interest in the region, its mythologies and mysticisms, its colors, customs, and horrors, is on full display in Bayou Fever and Related Works at DC Moore Gallery. The exhibition centers on a series of twenty-one collages Bearden made in 1979 as a storyboard for a proposed dance performance called Bayou Fever, which are being shown here for the first time in New York. While Bearden had hoped to collaborate on the dance with choreographer Alvin Ailey (with whom he had previously worked), the vision went unrealized. Yet the complete narrative that emerged from and reverberates within these restive, chromatic works also threw open a curtain on an aspect of the American schema less widely known: the chimerical culture of the Louisiana Bayou.
The collages tell a story of a small family residing in the bayou, whose infant child is struck ill after a portentous shadow passes over their home, infected by a spell cast by the Swamp Witch. The baby’s father seeks assistance from a Conjure Woman, who uses her own magic to fight off the witch and her various henchmen, rescuing the family from disease and misery. With a second shadow crossing the family’s house at the story’s conclusion, the end is left deliberately obscure as the entire cast departs for New Orleans to celebrate Mardi Gras. Bearden’s collages, whose narrative drew on elements of actual bayou folklore, are imbued with imagery he returned to throughout his career: powerful women, ritualistic ceremonials and religious symbolism, and the presence of music are all woven into the series.
Individual scenes teem with movement and vitality. The Lizard presents one of the Swamp Witch’s lackeys with his body jutting at extreme angles, arms thrown overhead; neon snakes, whose color matches a strip of jagged pink paper running along the right-hand vertical, slither around his torso. For the character’s face, Bearden has collaged and painted a photographic image of an African mask, evidence of a documented reality whose inclusion in the work somehow strengthens its surrealist quality. In The Conjur Woman, the brown female hero, sinuous and ardent, charges at a demon, spitting fire in its direction to drive it back. The panel’s small dimensions can barely contain her strident pose, the creature’s lashing paper flames. Viewing the works of Bayou Fever in succession, one can fairly imagine the performance Bearden had hoped for—his imagined dancers are already alive and pulsating with motion. The entire suite throbs with music if one chooses to absorb the works and listen.
A trove of Bearden’s work that underscores the themes and symbolism of Bayou Fever, from various periods of the artist’s career, supports the show. The stunning collage and oil-painted Mecklenburg Autumn: Heat Lightning Eastward (1983), depicts an African-American couple lounging on a picnic blanket on a warm evening. The man reclines with his back to the viewer, an abandoned guitar by his side, gazing at the woman beside him who sits upright, nude but for a hat and boots, legs splayed. Fiery reds and oranges, inky blues, and earthy sepias, expertly executed, all play a hand in the work’s potent sexuality, while lightning threads the midnight sky, suffusing the work with turbulent possibility.
The earliest works in the show, a trio of black-and-white Photostat collages, drawn from a body of work Bearden completed in 1964 (and which signaled his break from straightforward painting), explore similar themes to Bayou Fever, explicit in the case of Prevalence of Ritual/Conjur Woman as an Angel where the healer again makes appearance. It was as if the artist came to the medium of collage fully formed—so sophisticated are these works that the eye sees the sum of the parts before it begins to break down its individual elements. While remaining true to exploring themes of the African Diaspora in America, Bearden managed to simultaneously hearken back to Dadaist collage in his formal approach.
Bearden’s work, often relegated to the fringe during his lifetime, still holds strong and offers compelling lessons for the present moment. A penetrating spotlight, made harsher by the inauguration of the current administration, has unveiled the uglier side of our cultural underbelly. Thoughtful Americans have begun to question what the fabric of our nation is made from, and are realizing how much of the collective story has been excised from common understanding. Bearden’s work, looking at a regional black culture from an explicitly black perspective helps elucidate the intricate weave of which all of us are a part.
JESSICA HOLMES is a New York-based writer and critic who contributes regularly to the Brooklyn Rail, Artcritical, Hyperallergic, and other publications.