Romare Bearden Exhibition Inspires a Cultural Collage

By Jacqueline Trescott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 10, 2003


    Romare Bearden 'Pittsburgh Memories,' 1984 (Carnegie Museum of Art) Romare Bearden, "Pittsburgh Memories." (Carnegie Museum of Art)

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The unprecedented retrospective of Romare Bearden's work at the National Gallery of Art has prompted a series of cultural events reflecting the artist's fascination with history, religion, jazz, blues, urban folkways and the rhythms of everyday life in the South and the Caribbean.

The events will salute Bearden, an African American artist who was a master of intricate collages. But they are also designed to make visitors aware of the rich history of Washington's African American community.

The centerpiece will be the exhibition itself. "The Art of Romare Bearden," which opens Sunday, is the first show in the National Gallery's 62-year history devoted to a black artist. Bearden, who lived most of his life in New York City, was a well-known intellectual and seminal figure in a number of black arts movements for almost half a century. He died in 1988.

A complementary lineup, called "Blues & Dreams: Celebrating the African-American Experience in Washington, D.C.," will include more than 100 events produced by 50 organizations. "Blues & Dreams" is coordinated by the Washington, D.C., Convention & Tourism Corp. and Cultural Tourism DC.

"We are trying to find mechanisms that will bring together the institutions on the Mall with the places in the neighborhood and downtown. We are answering what makes Washington different from Paris or St. Louis," said Kathryn S. Smith, executive director of Cultural Tourism DC. "African American history and culture is absolutely essential to what this city is."

Del. Eleanor H. Norton (D-D.C.), a fourth-generation Washingtonian, yesterday called the programs "an unusual arts occasion for our city." Tallal ElBoushi, a nephew of the artist and chairman of the Romare Bearden Foundation, is in town for a preview of the show.

"Bearden would have loved that. It brings together what he loved," ElBoushi said of the "Blues & Dreams" celebration.

Following Bearden's inspiration, for instance, the Textile Museum is showing "African American Quilts from the Robert & Helen Cargo Collection." The quilts from the South -- primarily Alabama -- share the bold colors and intricate designs of Bearden's work. The show runs from Oct. 3 to Feb. 29. "Blues & Dreams" will bring the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra with Wynton Marsalis to the Kennedy Center for a Sept. 21 performance.

The Dance Institute of Washington will reprise its "Remembering U . . ." -- a tribute to the time when U Street was a Black Broadway -- at the Lincoln Theatre on Oct. 8 and 9. The institute will also lead the first annual Cakewalk on Freedom Plaza on Oct. 12.

The Smithsonian Anacostia Museum and Center for African American History and Culture has commissioned Mercedes Ellington, granddaughter of the composer, to develop new choreography for "Come Sunday: Duke Ellington's Sacred Music With Dance." The Expressions Dance Theatre will perform the work at the Metropolitan Baptist Church on Nov. 14.

Addison/Ripley Fine Art Gallery and Parish Gallery will have shows featuring Bearden's work in September and October.

Smith, a historian by training, wants the participants to know "how the city has been defined by the presence of African Americans" from the settlements around the Civil War forts to the pioneering work in civil rights. She has scheduled a walking tour of a black settlement in the Palisades neighborhood off Chain Bridge Road on Sept. 28 and Oct. 19. The Humanities Council of Washington, D.C., will devote Oct. 18 to the life and work of attorney Charles Hamilton Houston, known as "the man who killed Jim Crow."

The "Blues & Dreams" programs are scheduled to end Nov. 30. The retrospective at the gallery runs until Jan. 4.

Activities at the National Gallery include a panel on Bearden with scholars and original members of Spiral, an artists group formed in response to the civil rights movement during the 1960s. That will be held Sunday at 2 p.m. Also starting Sunday, the gallery will premiere a film it produced on the artist, narrated by Danny Glover and Morgan Freeman.

Though he is best known for his collages, Bearden was also a songwriter. Billie Holiday sang his lyrics, and his biggest hit, "Seabreeze," was recorded by Dizzy Gillespie and Yusef Lateef. In connection with the exhibition, Branford Marsalis brought out a new CD made for the exhibit, "Romare Bearden Revealed." Marsalis will play selections from the CD at a special gala next Monday for the Bearden Foundation. Also, there's a free concert with the Stanley Cowell Jazz Trio on Oct. 12 at 7 p.m. In addition, during the exhibition, the Terrace Cafe inside the Gallery's East Building will host a jazz brunch every Saturday and Sunday, another first.

For the first time, the gallery has also organized a street festival Sept. 20, closing its border of Fourth Street NW for storytellers, painters and chefs.

Bearden is a natural point of departure for this kind of activity, stressed Jennifer Cover Payne, executive director of the Cultural Alliance of Greater Washington, one of the partners in "Blues & Dreams."

"Bearden transcends so many cultures and is unusual in the wealth of his work," Payne said. "For it to be at the National Gallery and for them to reach out and pull in some small organizations, it is amazing that this is happening."

Information about "Blues & Dreams" events is available at

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