Romare Bearden in the Homeland of His Imagination: An Artist's Reckoning with the South
(University of North Carolina Press, 2022)
American historian Glenda Elizabeth Gilmore offers a biography of the artist Romare Bearden that attempts to essentialize the role of memory in understanding his art and life. Instead of relying solely on empirical evidence, she forefronts memory—Bearden’s and her own—to craft a biographical narrative that spans four generations of the Bearden family. Published after several recent texts on Bearden, including Mary Schmidt Campbell’s 2018 biography An American Odyssey: The Life and Work of Romare Bearden, Gilmore claims to intervene by exploring the contradictions between historical record and Bearden’s own recollections of his life, which “create a fruitful tension between how historical ‘fact’ and one’s own lived experiences coincide and collide.” The book also references Bearden’s artwork as a type of archive that Gilmore then “mines” for valuable historical and cultural information. Destabilizing traditional historical authority, Gilmore makes a lot of room for productive speculation. Although a promising transdisciplinary endeavor, Gilmore’s biography fails to complicate or add nuance to what is widely known of Bearden’s life.
Romare Bearden in the Homeland of His Imagination has a chronological narrative that is occasionally interrupted by visual analysis of some of Bearden’s most celebrated works. It begins with Bearden’s great-grandparents’ journey from slavery to a prosperous life in Charlotte, North Carolina, where the artist was born. As a historian of the American South, Gilmore is positioned to offer a historical analysis of Bearden’s life within a larger American context, expanding upon the work previously done by art historians, curators, and Bearden himself. But instead, Gilmore adds only a rudimentary recounting of the family’s history and a few examples of their self-fashioning. For example, Bearden’s mother intentionally changed the spelling of her name from Bessie to the more stylish Bessye after moving to Harlem. Her neglect to provide historical context on such topics as the failures of the Reconstruction era, present a missed opportunity to offer audiences the “why” and “how” for much of what she chronicles. Although Gilmore acknowledges Bearden’s often misperception as white, she evades the politics of colorism and its key role in Bearden’s mobility geographically, philosophically, and as a working artist. This has the doubly negative effect of de-emphasizing how uncommon the story of Bearden’s family is and their unique position to traverse cities, class lines, and political affiliations at the turn of the twentieth century.
Gilmore intends to use Bearden’s art “as an archive in three ways: to illuminate his family’s and his own experiences, to explore his own Black imaginary, and to carry the narrative thread of his artist practice over decades.” She juxtaposes the artworks to moments in Bearden’s history to help interpret key factors of the past and key details in the works themselves. For example, she uses Family (1986) to demonstrate his contending with his family’s self-fashioning efforts. Bearden’s mother Bessye, and Bearden himself, changed the year of his birth at different times in his life, supposedly impacting how he recalled childhood memories. Family, Gilmore speculates, depicts an “entangled” memory of baby Bearden in the arms of his great-grandmother, when in reality he would have been around nine years old during such a visit. In instances like this, Gilmore’s use of the terms “memory” and “fantasy” are almost interchangeable, which at times appeal to the exceptional in Bearden’s artistic practice, but at others seem to undermine his authority in narrating his own past. The lines between his intentional artistic choices and the fidelity of his mind are often blurred. Is Bearden’s memory “entangled” or is that how he wanted to remember? Did he forget how old he was, or is the figure of the baby what he wanted us to see?
Gilmore’s visual interpretations of Bearden’s artwork present the most exciting space for speculation and transdisciplinary thought, but ultimately reveal the author’s own imaginative limitations. When interpreting Bearden’s Conjunction (1979), a collage that depicts three Black men conversing, Gilmore speculates if the central figure is enslaved: “The middle figure stands between, but apart from, the bonding men. Perhaps he is enslaved. His ‘shirt’ is the color of the background, rendering him exposed. A white line decapitates him. His hand makes a futile gesture. His trousers could be slave pantaloons.” A seemingly harmless reading, one may miss that Gilmore renders the figure a slave of her own volition. The work is titled Conjunction and the title, along with the intimate proximity of the depicted bodies, connotes fraternity. To look at an image made in 1979 of three Black men shaking hands and, without any substantial cultural, historical, or visual reasoning, to speculate that one figure is enslaved, is beyond stereotyping. Without providing reference to images or scholarship that indicate that the figure’s pants reflect those worn by the enslaved, she simply assumes the benefit of her own analysis. The compositional style of the collaged image, heavily influenced by Cubism, renders the man dressed in a shirt with a white collar. To read a shirt collar as a “decapitation” is violent, and to layer that reading on the image posthumously, is dangerous. It is this willful ignorance that produces the racialized stereotypes that negatively impact how we collectively see and interpret the work of Black artists.
Most significantly, the book’s subtitle is An Artist’s Reckoning with the South, yet there is little consideration of the South geographically, historically, or even as a place often romanticized or seen as backward in the American imagination. Gilmore presents little distinction between the North and South beyond the historical binaries of slavery and freedom, which undermines the significance of the monograph’s intervention. The central contradiction that Gilmore exposes is Bearden’s label as a “Southern artist,” which she problematizes by demonstrating how the South was not a place he lived or was able to experience for long. Once Bearden left the South as a small child, he would rarely return. Instead, “he turned to the South for inspiration. Images of Charlotte with the Kennedys, Greensboro with Anna Bearden, and Lawrenceville summers with Catie Bearden Cummings began to surface,” she explains. “Most often, the narratives mixed flashes of memory and imaginings. Becoming richer and richer, they created their own world in Bearden’s mind, his ‘homeland’ of the imagination.” Bearden’s imagined South is where such figures as the Conjure Woman, the Pepper Jelly Lady, and Maudell Sleet transcend flesh and bone to become Southern iconography.
Gilmore recounts that Bearden would often fabricate or encourage myths of a Southern upbringing, while diminishing the extent to which he was formally trained as an artist. Neglecting to consider Bearden’s motivations, especially after experiencing commercial success, leaves important questions unconsidered. Why would Bearden want to be seen as a Southern artist? How does his turn to figuration, collage, and the South compare to the trajectory of his contemporaries? How influenced was Bearden by the demands of the art market for art by Black artists? Arguably, Gilmore could be reflecting Bearden’s own lack of critical engagement with the South beyond memory and imagination, but in doing so she treats the region as inconsequential. Without an exploration of what it meant to be a Southern artist, or critical engagement with what it means to be from the South over the course of Bearden’s lifetime, there is no reckoning.