If you haven’t heard already, prepare yourself: Columbia is hosting an exhibition of Romare Bearden’s “A Black Odyssey” starting in November, and it’s gonna be a big deal. It’s gonna be a big deal not only because Romare Bearden’s pieces are amazing, vibrant collages in an exhibit curated by the Smithsonian, but also because there are going to be poetry readings, lectures, plays, and all sorts of events all year surrounding the issues and themes that Bearden used in his work. Bearden translates Homer’s texts into a visual language, using the story of Odysseus to depict the journeys of African-Americans and weaving African culture into the poems that serve as a foundation for Western culture.
The first of these discussions, “The Sirens’ Song: Women and Gender in Bearden and Homer” started the series off on Friday afternoon. Inside Buell Hall, while observers watched on from stylish but child-sized seats, five professors from Columbia, Barnard, and Princeton served as panelists in discussing their own interpretations of Bearden’s work and his transformation of Homer’s epics to suit his life and work as an African-American in Harlem. For those of you who couldn’t fit in those ridiculously small chairs, here’s a summary of what you missed:
Professor Marcellus Blount, who teaches English and Comparative Literature here at Columbia, started the lecture by asking a question: “What does this dead white man think about race and gender?” He went on to discuss feminism in The Odyssey, particularly focusing on Penelope’s role as a leader in Ithaka while Odysseus is away, noting that the peace she created came from unity and coexistence, unlike Odysseus’s violent reassertion of his own power. He then noted that his “quarrel” with the Lit Hum texts has to do with the “convention of reading through the lens of Western exceptionalism,” suggesting a new reading that is more culturally diverse and with a broader lens.
Princeton professor of Art and Archeology Rachael DeLue addressed questions of why Bearden made his pieces, and looked into his methods and their effects on the meaning of the piece. She noted the use of collage as a method that created a “rustling, fragmented world of pattern,” and discussed the insistent appearance of Bearden’s silhouettes and the striking effect they have in making his figures stand out. She spoke in particular about the piece “Return of Odysseus: Homage to Pinturicchio and Benin”, showing Pinturicchio’s (an Italian Renaissance painter) painting of Odysseus’ return, and how Bearden transposed it not only into collage, but also into African culture.