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Audio Tour | Romare Bearden: A Black Odyssey

Hear a tour of select works from Romare Bearden: A Black Odyssey! The tour will guide you through Homer's scenes and give you rare insight into the way Romare Bearden re-invented "The Odyssey" with universal appeal. Listen to Zora Neale Hurston Professor of English at Columbia University Dr. Robert O'Meally, Diedra Harris-Kelley, Bearden's neice and co-director of the Romare Bearden Foundation; and artist, writer and musician, Paul Miller, a.k.a. DJ Spooky, chat about Romare Bearden, music, art, and "The Odyssey" in these candid interviews, filled with drama and great storytelling!

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» Read the transcribed version of this audio tour.

» Check out the "Romare Bearden: A Black Odyssey" Playlist, featuring Miles Davis, Duke Ellington, and more.

Stop #1 Overview: Who was Romare Bearden? Welcome to "Romare Bearden: A Black Odyssey," organized by the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service (SITES) in cooperation with the Romare Bearden Foundation and Estate and DC Moore Gallery. American Modernist artist Romare Bearden was born in 1911 . . . Full Transcription

Stop #2 Home to Ithaca: The man standing at the bow of the ship is Odysseus, and this is his homecoming, 20 long years in the making. Like the best jazz and hip-hop musicians who take existing melodies, beats and rhythms to create something entirely new, here Bearden is riffing on Homer’s "Odyssey" and making it his own . . . Full Transcription
Stop #3 Works from the "Iliad" Series: "The Odyssey" wasn’t the first time Bearden drew inspiration from Homer. In the late 1940s, Bearden was working primarily in pen-and-ink and made a series of drawings based on "The Iliad," Homer’s story about the Trojan War. It’s the battle that leads up to the events in "The Odyssey" . . . Full Transcription

Stop #4 The Fall of Troy: War is hell. Homer knew it. So did Bearden. This is his interpretation of the Fall of Troy—the decisive moment of the Trojan War. On the right, that’s the Trojan horse, perhaps the most brilliant fake-out in the history of warfare. Here Bearden creates his own distinct vision . . . Full Transcription

Stop #5 Battle with Cicones: “We took their wives and also much booty, which we divided equitably amongst us, so that none might have reason to complain. I then said that we had better make off at once, but my men very foolishly would not obey me, so they stayed there drinking much wine and killing . . .“ Full Transcription

Stop #6 Realm of Shades: Bearden creates a ghoulish scene, indeed. Skeletal figures crowd the building on the right, perch expectantly, litter the foreground. The bright, claw-like flames are Bearden’s flourish, invoking perhaps the Christian imagery of hell. Tiresias, who prophesizes that Odysseus still has a long journey ahead . . . Full Transcription

Stop #7 Poseidon, The Sea God—Enemy of Odysseus An angry Poseidon is not to be trifled with, and Odysseus has made him very mad. As the story goes, early in his journey, Odysseus encountered the one-eyed giant, the Cyclops, who threatened to gobble him up.  He escaped by stabbing a spear into the monster’s single eye . . . Full Transcription

Stop #8 Circe: For Bearden, Circe hearkens back to the women of his past, specifically the ‘conjur woman,’ who was an important part of black communities in the Americas. Many were trained priestesses, skilled in a system of spiritual practices adapted from West Africa and often intermixed with Christian elements . . . Full Transcription

Stop #9 Odysseus Leaves Nausicaa: I think that African-American music, particularly the blues, is all about encounters with enigmatic men and  women and circumstances where I love you, but you don’t love me.  I love you, but you left me. And in that sense, Bearden’s Odysseus series is a blues song . . . Full Transcription

Stop #10 The Land of the Lotus Eaters: On the tenth day we reached the land of the Lotus-eater, who live on a food that comes from a kind of flower. I sent two of my company to see what manner of men the people of the place might be…They started at once, and went about among the Lotus-eaters who did them no hurt . . . Full Transcription

Stop #11 The Sirens' Song: Imagine you’ve recently been released from the clutches of Circe the Sorceress . . . unlike some members of your crew, you’ve avoided being turned into a pig. You are desperate to get home. But remember, this is Odysseus we’re talking about--flawed and impulsive . . . Full Transcription

Stop #12 Cattle of the Sun God: This is the calm before the storm: a bucolic scene of sheep and cows, the sun hanging heavy over the horizon, a few armed men, a shepherdess. Bearden gives no hint of what’s about to unfold. These are the prized sheep and cattle of the Sun God Helios. Odysseus has been warned. . . Full Transcription

Stop #13 The Sea Nymph: Throughout this series, and his work in general, Bearden re-visits the theme of water, how it can cleanse and transform. In this scene, Poseidon has stirred up the seas, and Odysseus is dragged under. Ino, a Goddess of the salty depths, comes to the rescue. According to Professor O’Meally . . . Full Transcription

Stop #14 Baptism: "This is just a crowded, beautiful, depiction. You see this idea of people crowding in together. And it's a ritual. And you feel the scariness of being in the water, and being caught in a moment. Bearden is returning home. He’s trying to get at what it is about Southern life that he keeps remembering . . . " Full Transcription

Stop #15 Life in St. Maarten: As Bearden developed his collage method, music influenced not only his subject matter, but his technique as well.  In his work, he incorporated the spirit of improvisation that drives much African American music….from the blues, to jazz to hip-hop. He’d let his initial idea give way . . . Full Transcription

Stop #16 Odysseus Meets his Father: With so much of Bearden’s “Black Odyssey” focused on Odysseus and his powerful women, it’s easy to forget Odysseus had a son, Telemachus, and a father, Laertes, both of whom suffer his absence. In this watercolor scene, Odysseus has returned home . . . Full Transcription

Stop #17 The Bow of Odysseus: This is a climactic moment in the epic, pitting Odysseus, on the bottom far right, against Penelope’s suitors—up at the top—in an arrow-shooting contest, to win her hand in marriage. Until the end of the story, Odysseus remains the trickster: rather than revealing his true identity . . . Full Transcription

Stop #18 Odysseus and Penelope Reunited: This is the end of the story—Odysseus and Penelope are finally reunited. But Homer brings "The Odyssey" to an uncertain conclusion. Odysseus has reached home, but Poseidon is still out there, raging. Odysseus still has his flaws. His spiritual journey is not over . . . Full Transcription

Stop #19 The Return of Ulysses: In this scene, toward the end of the story, Odysseus approaches Penelope. She’s on the left, at her loom, where she’s sat, day after day, as her suitors pursue her.  There they are, at the far right. And to the right of the loom, that’s Odysseus, arm outstretched to his long-suffering wife . . . Full Transcription

Stop #20 House in Cotton Field: Bearden’s art flowed from his memories. This collage, like much of his work, was inspired by his time in Mecklenburg County, North Carolina, where his parents were from, and where he spent a lot of time as both a boy and an adult. He created multiple collages of daily life there . . . Full Transcription