The Prevalence of Ritual | Daily News

The Prevalence of Ritual

On October 6, 1964, at the height of the American civil rights movement, fifty-three-year-old Romare Bearden, a mature artist with a moderately successful career as a painter behind him, debuted nearly two dozen billboard-size, black-and-white, photographic enlargements of collages—Projections, he called them. Instead of the large abstract work he had been painting up to then, he filled his canvases with the faces of black people. Their expressions, unflinching and intense, dominated crowded city streets, southern cotton fields, and ecstatic rituals. Spontaneous passions seemed to erupt from these works, filling the walls of Cordier-Ekstrom, Bearden’s gallery on the Upper East Side of New York.

Some called his creations a sign of the turbulent times: the 1950s Montgomery bus boycott and Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court ruling; 1960s lunch counter sit-ins, freedom rides, the March on Washington, and the passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964, the year of Projections. A surge of civil rights activism swept the country, compelling an urgent need for change. Figures in Bearden’s Projections embody that urgency, confronting their viewers like characters in a play caught in mid-action. At first glance the figures in Projections look ordinary, as if the artist were merely reporting a news event, except faces are fractured and dislocated, their hands swollen to twice their normal size, bodies pieced together from startling juxtapositions, including, as one commentator notes, “parts of African masks, animal eyes, marbles, corn and mossy vegetation.”

History of distortions

“Grotesque” might be too harsh a word to describe some of the figures in the Projections. Yet they evoke a history of distortions of black life even as they also re-envision that life. Bearden’s friend Ralph Ellison used the word “disturbing” to describe the figures in the work; their stridency, he noted, was completely out of character for an artist who, until that exhibition, was not known for representations of race. Why did Bearden so emphatically and comprehensively change the style and subject matter of his art?

Bearden himself steadfastly rejected political explanations of his art, even Projections. Yet, his life—his childhood, coming of age, and emergence as a major artist—intersected squarely with a battle over representation. It was not a new fight, for it had started in the aftermath of the Civil War and become a proxy for a violent and desperate war in the public, social, and legislative spheres over who enjoys the rights and privileges of citizenship. Before the Civil War, American citizenship flatly excluded slaves, the status of the overwhelming majority of black people in the New World. Emancipation and the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments radically changed that status. Theoretically, they defined, and should have safeguarded, citizenship rights for newly freed slaves. To celebrate and record and, most of all, project their newly acquired identities, black Americans often turned to self-representation, to photography.

Henry and Rosa Kennedy, Bearden’s great-grandparents, proud of their new citizenship status, understood the affirmative documentary value of photographs. An enlarged photographic image of them (probably taken in the 1920s) hung on the wall of Bearden’s studio. Former slaves, the Kennedys had become prosperous landowners and entrepreneurs after the Civil War in Charlotte, North Carolina.“Romie,” as he was called, was born in their home on September 2, 1911. The photograph shows the Kennedys sitting on the porch of their home. Rosa Kennedy looks into the camera with almost open defiance. Bearden did not discover this photograph until he returned to Charlotte years after the 1964 debut of the Projections. Nonetheless, he replicated her fierceness in the faces in Projections. He captures the same quality of interior life present in this ancestral photograph. As sociologist Robin Kelly observes, early photographs often captured “the interior life of Black America, the world either hidden from public view or forced into oblivion by the constant flood of stereotypes.”

Documentary photography

By the time Bearden was constructing his collage paintings in the 1960s and then blowing them up into black-and-white enlargements, film, television, advertising, journalism, and documentary photography were standard bearers of beauty and fashion, symbols of mainstream American cultural identity, and acting as sales pitches for everything from televisions to politicians. With the advent of the Internet and social media in the twenty-first century, the potency of visual culture’s reach only continued to grow.

Bearden insisted that his work—paintings and collages—was neither propaganda nor sociology. During his life and after his death, his reputation has rested primarily on his collages, a blend of visual memoir and emotional realism that evokes a rapidly disappearing past. When I was a graduate student, he wrote me a letter in which he explained the phrase he has used for images of the past in Projections—the “prevalence of ritual”: “My paintings can’t be only what they appear to represent.

People in a Baptism, in a Virginia stream, are linked to St. John the Baptist, to ancient purification rites and to their African heritage. I feel this continuation of ritual gives a dimension to the works so that the works are something other than mere designs.” - Paris Review 


 

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