I always take it for granted that everyone is familiar with Romare Bearden–the father of the collage who was also a cartoonist, an activist, an author and a costume designer for the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. Out of all the Black visual artists of the past and present, his work can usually be found in any and every art museum. His collages, photomontages, watercolors, oils and prints are typically the one reminder that Blacks are also artists. And yet, time after time, I invoke his name only to be met with a “huh”?
Romare Howard Bearden, born in 1911, hailing from North Carolina was the quintessential African American artist. Once a social worker by day, he worked on his art by night and grew in popularity until his first solo exhibition in Harlem in 1940. His work provided the visual accompaniment to contemporaries such as James Baldwin, Duke Ellington, Ralph Ellison and Langston Hughes as they all shared a common mission in telling the African American story, the true Black experience, through their individual art forms.
Bearden founded the Studio Museum in Harlem and the Cinque Gallery. Bearden was a founding member of the Black Academy of Arts and Letters. Bearden was elected to the National Institute of Arts and Letters. Bearden’s work appeared on the cover of Fortune and Time. Bearden is a recipient of the National Medal of Arts. Bearden is badass personified. Recognize.
One of his most famous works (and there are so many) is Patchwork Quilt, 1970. The first time I encountered this piece, I identified with it immediately. How many times have I taken a nap on my couch with one of my colorful crocheted blankets thrown across the back? My hair wrapped in a scarf to maintain the style. My shoes off, my jewelry still on. My arm folded beneath my head to catch any drool that may stain the throw pillow.
I am this woman after a long day of work. I am an African queen at rest. No matter what the day, or this harsh American landscape, may have thrown at me, I maintain the beauty and dignity of those who came before me. Those giants of the past..their blood flows through me. They make up the many facets of me. Their dark and lovely coloring is my own. They are the quilt in which I find comfort. A quick nap. Before I stand again to live and thrive.
To learn more about Romare Bearden and his many contributions to the art world, click here.