Guest Blogger Erin Williams on Romare Bearden: A Black Odyssey
In the quarter-century that I have spent in and around the city that I refer to as my second home - the place where I spent more summers, weekends, holidays, weekdays and all the days in between with my extended family, not once had the time ever been taken to go to the Brooks Museum.
That time ended yesterday.
Of course, when you’re eleven years old and you have the option of looking at art versus checking out the interior of the Jungle Room, you can easily guess which one of those wins out. But I digress. Now that I have entered adulthood and have a say over where I spend my in-between time shifting from Whitehaven to Midtown and everywhere in between, I make it a point to include places that weren’t on my radar when I was a kid. In the past few years, I have developed a deep interest in arts and culture, and knew that a visit to the Brooks was in my near future. In my arts education, I had only heard about, but never seen face to face, the style of work iconic to Romare Bearden. To see it on the last leg of my visit would be an Easter treat in itself, and therefore I had to go.
I was automatically tickled at the intricately placed yarn bombs as I walked up the entryway to the building, and stood back to admire the fluorescent media display that greeted me as I opened the door. Upon chatting and checking in with the friendly attendant, I circled downstairs on a mission to take in as much of the exhibit as possible. With a near-five hour drive and unfavorable skies ahead of me, I had to make good use of my time. I decided to concentrate squarely on the Bearden exhibit during my inaugural visit, but had I stayed longer, I’m pretty sure I would have spent the opening hours planted firmly in the exhibition’s spot. I asked for an iPod, which offered great audio explanations for every work, but eventually took off my headphones and studied each work for myself, just so I wouldn’t miss anything.
The images that stuck out the most to me were of Baptism - the faces conveyed the exact emotion and strength that one often sees demonstrated during such a life changing event; and of the goddess Circe; her adornments, vivid expression, and being surrounded by animals made me know she was not only important, but not to be messed with, especially in Greek mythology.
Bearden’s vision of portraying Homer’s work from such an artistic perspective was both ingenious and eye-opening. Each frame led you deeper and deeper into Odysseus’ journey - losing his men, being tempted by women, and fretting over his future - that you wonder if he will ever make it home. The opening statement helped to set the tone for what I was about to see - “As equally important as getting home is feeling at home wherever we may be...like Odysseus, we are all travelers through uncertain seas, all striving to maintain our families and ourselves as we seek pathways home.”
Like many twentysomethings, I am in a phase where I toggle back and forth on a daily basis if I am doing the right thing, am I in the right location, will I remain in one spot forever, and - of course - what’s next. No matter the chaos and turmoil I may be facing before I arrive, I always feel at home and safe in Memphis, and fight fiercely to maintain my family ties and be true to myself. That a mythical character from eons ago was going through the same journey - and, more importantly, that I had something in common with Homer - helped to open my eyes to the landscape that Bearden created.
Though I knew how the story ended, I was relieved as I saw Odysseus inch his way home. I glanced at the time and knew that like our hero I’d soon have to make my way back too. As I collected my belongings and headed out the door, I realized how grateful I was to the fact that even though there was no book in sight, I felt I had just read the entire epic for myself, and understood it way better than Cliffs Notes would have explained. I left with a deeper understanding of Odysseus, awe and respect for Bearden, and calm for myself. Not only had I just added another place to call “home” on my Memphis map, but I realized that all roads, no matter how unpredictable or unyielding they may be, lead you to your destination. And that journey is one I now feel more prepared to take.
Erin Williams is a multimedia journalist currently based in St. Louis