This work by Romare Bearden condenses centuries of history onto a small panel with several scenes and characters

Romare Bearden's Depiction
of the African-American Experience

By Beth Hamilton

Romare Bearden was one of the most renowned African American artists of the twentieth century working in the mediums of collage and photomontage. Born in 1911 in Charlotte, North Carolina, Bearden migrated with his family to New York when he was three years old. While Bearden spent the majority of his life in New York, his deep connection to the south was visualized in many of his works in the years that followed. The Bearden family settled in Harlem where they met and befriended many luminaries of the Harlem Renaissance. The house was a frequent gathering place for artists, performers, poets, and jazz musicians. Bearden’s exposure to the arts through prominent figures such as Langston Hughes, Duke Ellington, and W.E.B Du Bois helped to shape his life and career.

In 1935, Bearden graduated with a degree in education from New York University. He also took several courses in art, and worked as a lead cartoonist and art editor for The Medley, a monthly journal published by NYU. Bearden developed a more serious interest in art after joining the Harlem Artists Guild, an organization founded by Augusta Savage, Charles Alston, Elba Lightfoot, and Arthur Schomburg to encourage young African American artists. He also attended the Art Students League in New York, studying with German Expressionist artist George Grosz. Significantly, Bearden’s friendship with artist Stuart Davis would also prove to be an important influence on the young artist. Improvisation was a key method in Davis’ paintings, based in part on jazz music, and Bearden would eventually adapt this as well as Davis’ use of flat areas of color and form.

During his early career, Bearden experimented with a number of styles and mediums, and received his first solo exhibition in Harlem in 1940, and another in 1944 in Washington, DC. After briefly painting abstractions, Bearden turned to collage in the early 1960s and drew from musical, literary, historical, and artistic sources for his subject matter. In these richly textured works, Bearden inventively combined cut-paper, paint, photographs, and magazine clippings to create narrative works using both abstract and figural subjects. The art of collage allowed Bearden to juxtapose unusual pairings of images, which he felt best portrayed the experience of African Americans in American culture.

Starting about 1972, Bearden was commissioned to create large-scale murals in Atlanta, Georgia, New York, Berkeley, California, Atlantic City, New Jersey, Hartford, Connecticut, Baltimore, Maryland, and North Carolina. Small-scale studies were often the inception for these large works, as seen in the present composition, A Symbolic Pageant of Afro-American History. This work may have served as a study for a larger mural at Clark Atlanta University that is now destroyed. Two later related sketches exist in the collection of the High Museum of Art in Atlanta (Fig. 1), and another in the collection of the Clark Atlanta University (Fig. 2).

Romare Bearden's watercolor, ink and graphite sketch of Martin Luther King, Jr. and African American protesters in front of geometric patterns.
Fig. 1: Romare Bearden, American, 1911-1988. Untitled, Study for mural, 1976. Watercolor, ink, and graphite on graph paper. 7 15/16 x 34 1/2 inches. High Museum of Art, Atlanta, Georgia.
Romare Bearden's collage featuring an image of Martin Luther King, Jr. and African American protesters in front of geometric patterns.
Fig. 2: Romare Bearden, American, 1911-1988. Atlanta Mural, 1976. Collage/maquette, 7 3/4 x 34 1/2 inches. The Clark Atlanta University Art Museum, Atlanta, Georgia.

In this compelling work, the history of African American life is illustrated from ancient times to modern history, not only highlighting black life but also the struggle for Civil Rights. The work is illustrated with the four main titles, “Building the World of Tomorrow,” “The Urban Crisis,” “The Rural Scene,” and “The African Heritage.” From left to right, Bearden first illustrates African Americans at work, one as a draftsman, another as a computer technician, and several as construction workers building a skyscraper. Next, a one-inch sliver of collage shows a tightly packed group of African American protesters. To the right, a cut-out image of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is shown prominently among the surrounding representative characters. At center, there are five categories within “The Rural Scene” vignette: “The Migration,” “The Family,” “The Soldier and Underground R.R.,” “Music,” and “The School.” The final vignette illustrates two African figures wearing colorfully patterned textiles.

Bearden was a prolific artist and prominent social activist and writer throughout his lifetime. He helped to establish many arts organizations, including the Studio Museum in Harlem, The Black Academy of Arts and Letters, and the Cinque Gallery, a venue established to support younger minority artists. His work is included in important public and private collections, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, the Studio Museum in Harlem, among others.

A Symbolic Pageant of Afro-American History is a small, but powerful work that exemplifies Bearden’s achievements as a poignant storyteller and twentieth century modernist. Using the bold and multilayered collage technique, Bearden expresses the African American experience, both the enduring struggles and the heroic successes.

Cover image: Romare Bearden, American, 1911-1988. A Symbolic Pageant of Afro-American History, 1972. Collage on fiberboard. 6 x 26 inches. Signed lower right.