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.
Helene Foley, a professor of Classics at Columbia and Barnard, showed the group how Bearden gives Homer’s somewhat unsatisfying epic an ending, as he depicts peace restored to Ithaka. She looked closely at Odysseus as a hero, visualized by Bearden as a strong and powerful figure, strikingly outlined against his ship as he returns home and with his bow before he slays the suitors. Lastly she discussed the reconciliation between Odysseus and Penelope, pointing out Bearden’s way of reuniting them more solidly than even perhaps Homer does and they are shown together in orderly and vital Ithaka.
Professor of English, Comparative Literature and African American studies Farah Jasmine Griffin compared Bearden’s translation of Homer to Toni Morrison’s. She discussed Morrison’s Song of Solomon, released in the same year as Bearden’s series, and emphasized the elements of an odyssey from and back to Africa, and the search for a home and a patriarch. She noted the importance of Circe, featured prominently in Bearden’s works, as a seductive and powerful African priestess of sorts, and compared this character to Morrison’s Circe, who outlives and outlasts everyone in the Southern white family who owned her. Both works together focused on a nurturing of African-American culture and a furthering of the power of women.
Last to speak, Princeton Classics Professor Brooke Holmes pulled together strings of cannibalism in Homer. She notes it as a hypothetical in The Iliad, as characters suggest their rage might be fulfilled by this animalistic act, and something that becomes a reality in The Odyssey when characters such as Scylla and Polyphemus show Odysseus that he is far away from Troy. She discussed Scylla’s nature as a gendered monster at length, as showed Bearden’s depiction of one large, mothering head to five smaller baby heads to suggest a maternal and terrifying nature in this monster.
Each professor presented a unique and interesting take on the connections between issues of gender and race in Homer and in Bearden’s take, suggesting an interesting series to come as this exhibition goes on throughout the year.
Image via Great Thoughts Treasury