Harlem as Told by Bearden
Harlem is a web of Black connections. Harlem is a place where Black artists, travelers, professionals, and business owners live alongside each other in community. This community spans generations and is noted in history as the home of the Harlem Renaissance, countless Black empowerment movements, and Black successes. Black artists have undoubtedly shaped this neighborhood and continue to pour into it through their lives’ work. Romare Bearden was a prolific artist whose work exposes viewers to his many influences and to the changes Harlem underwent during his time. Bearden’s work is featured in The Studio Museum in Harlem’s permanent collection and in numerous Studio Museum exhibitions. The Bearden Project, which marked the centennial of his birth and brought together one hundred contemporary artists who have been inspired by Bearden.
The artist first moved to Harlem as a child in 1914, and later returned in 1941 with his own studio at the historic Apollo Theater. Bearden quickly became intertwined with Black artists’ struggles. He most notably contributed to Critique: A Review of Contemporary Art with his written work “The Negro Artist's Dilemma.”1 He notes that in most of American history, the oppressor has had the privilege to represent the oppressed, and now, Black people, constantly “exposed to these false standards, tend to adopt these as their own.”2 Bearden tells Black artists: do not fall prey to the stereotypes of an art world that calls you "Black” before "artist.” Bearden continued his work as an activist well into the 1960s and 70s, just as the Black Arts Movement took flight with contributors such as Amiri Baraka, Audre Lorde, Ntozake Shange, James Baldwin, and Gil Scott-Heron.3 As the sociopolitical landscape of Harlem shifted in the background, Bearden explored themes of legacy, lineage, and spirituality in his artwork. Romare Bearden’s oeuvre tells an intimate and culturally relevant story of Harlem as a hub for Black connection.
Homage to Duke, Bessie, and Louis (c. 1980) is a graphite collage that pays homage to jazz legends of the Harlem Renaissance—Duke Ellington, Bessie Smith, and Louis Armstrong. At the time this work was made, these musicians had already passed away. Yet, the work memorializes them through a strikingly graphic style that mimics a promotional poster of the performing artists. Bearden pays tribute to these legends during a time when jazz and blues performers were no longer the main attraction at the iconic Apollo Theater as hip-hop and pop artists dominated the music scene. Homage to Duke, Bessie, and Louis is a callback to the Harlem that Bearden once knew. This memorial of artists from the jazz scene of the Harlem Renaissance speaks to an incomparable period in Harlem history. Paying respect to those who have passed is a cornerstone of a healthy community that hopes to continue their legacy.
Prelude to Farewell, Bearden’s collage from 1981, depicts an intimately domestic scene of everyday Black life. The work features two figures in its composition, one older woman dressed in ornamental and colorful garb, and one younger woman bathing nude. Iterations of these two figures recur in Bearden’s work and illustrate a multigenerational household. Prelude to Farewell represents the actuality for many Black families in urban space—the multigenerational household is a space where elders can share knowledge and love with the younger generation. Bearden offers a glimpse of the outside world in the window of the home, where we see the train as a stark symbol of a growing industry in the cityscape. Bearden suggests to viewers that in the face of the rapid urban development of the 1980s, Black people turn inward to their communities. Not all are on stage at the Apollo; home brings connection to a family lineage that is as compounded as the textures of this collage.
Obeah of High Category, Bearden’s watercolor work from 1984, is a portrait of an Obeah woman: practitioners of West African spiritual tradition. Many iterations of Obeah exist throughout the diaspora, including Conjure Women of the American South, which Bearden depicts in many other works. The white gown the Obeah wears is traditional to West African spiritual garb and appeals to the common association of white with holiness. Focusing on the face of the Obeah woman, we see references to Benin masks with geometric and elongated noses and eyes. Bearden’s integration of these cultural aesthetics reveals that the Obeah’s status lies in her ties to West African divinity.
Bearden began engaging more intimately with spiritual themes following his 1971 MoMA exhibition The Prevalence of Ritual.4 In a 1979 interview for the television program Inside New York’s Art World, Bearden shared that his works “do not relate to a particular place” and depict rituals such as bathing “to give extension to the work.”5 West African spirituality has prevailed against geographical boundaries and established strong roots in Afro-Carribean and African American traditions. Spirituality and ritual span the African diaspora and generations of Black people. With this strong portrait of the practitioner of this ritual, Bearden paints a transcendent Harlem. The late 1980s and beyond brought strong tides of Pan-Africanism to Harlem as Black people faced discrimination worldwide. Black people were further united in their struggles, West African spirituality was revered as a source of empowerment and kinship.
Bearden’s work chronicles the evolution of Harlem in the twentieth century. Harlem moves away from its Renaissance and memorializes its legends. Harlem’s elders turn inward to impart wisdom to the younger generation as the neighborhood faces industrial development and gentrification. Harlem culture transcends the bounds of time and space through a spiritual bond with the larger diaspora. Pan-Africanism becomes a driving force in Harlem’s activism following the Black Arts Movement. In his work, Romare Bearden drew from art across the globe and from disparate time periods. Yet, Harlem appears as a recurring character in his work.
Bearden continues to be an emblem of Harlem and a source of inspiration for many Black artists today. One hundred years after his birth, kindergarten students at the Margaret Douglas School joined the Studio Museum in Harlem in weeks of collaboration to learn about community and collage through Bearden. Students revisited Conjur Woman (1964), wherein he represented the American practitioner of an adapted West African tradition. This work and its continued impact speak to the transcendent Harlem Bearden envisioned in his later work. As Harlem undergoes radical change in the present, it becomes increasingly important for us all to learn how this space has taken on change in the past. Harlem continues to be synonymous with Black artistry and the furthering of Black artists’ legacy is an obligation this community has always taken great pride in fulfilling. The future Bearden paints for Harlem materializes as his impact makes its way into Harlem history and the hearts of innumerable inspired artists.
1) “Timeline,” Bearden Foundation, accessed December 6, 2022, beardenfoundation.org/timeline/.
2) Romare Bearden, “The Negro Artist’s Dilemma,” The Romare Bearden Reader, 2019, 91–98, doi.org/10.1215/9781478002260-006.
3) ”Black Arts Movement (1965–1975),” National Archives and Records Administration, accessed December 6, 2022, archives.gov/research/african-americans/Black-power/arts.
4) 402: In and around Harlem: MoMa, Museum of Modern Art, accessed December 11, 2022, moma.org/calendar/galleries/5116.
5) DukeLibDigitalColl, “Romare Bearden, 1979,” YouTube, August 29, 2019, youtube.com/watch?v=ub-7YQ2Rcrs.