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[Detail] sit-down strike after being refused service

Socially Conscious Art: Romare Bearden and the Collage

Romare Bearden was a twentieth-century African American artist who worked in a variety of media but is best known for his collages, which he began making during the civil rights movement of the 1960s. The move to collage also marked a move to creating socially conscious art; that is, art that comments on or prompts reflection on social problems.

Romare Bearden. Roots Odyssey. Screen print, 1976

Romare Bearden. Roots
. Screen print, 1976. 28 3/4 x 22 7/8...

Collages are works of art created by putting together varied objects to create a new image. The objects may include almost anything that can be affixed to a canvas: photographs,quotations, newspaper articles, letters, legal documents, drawings, ticket stubs, flags, fabric, paper cut into particular shapes, origami creations, and much more. In the case of socially conscious art, the artist often selects particular items because they symbolize some aspect of a social problem. The artist also considers the visual impact of the items, their juxtapositions with one another, and their overall arrangement on the canvas.

The Special Presentation, The African American Odyssey: A Quest for Full Citizenship includes two of Bearden’s collages. These collages, each focusing on an aspect of slavery, are Roots Odyssey and Prince Cinqué. Study these collages and answer the following questions:

  • List the items in each collage. What, in your view, does each item represent?
  • How are the two collages similar? What items or similar items appear in each? Why do you think Bearden chose to include similar items in the two collages?
  • How are the two collages different? Consider not only the items used but also how they are arranged on the page and the colors used. How do the differences affect how you respond to each collage?

Choose one of the eras covered in the Special Presentation. Using items from the Special Presentation and the five digital collections that make up the African American Odyssey collection, as well as items you create, make a collage that conveys something about African Americans’ demand for full participation in American society during the selected era. Think about what each item will convey, as well as how you will arrange them and what response the juxtaposition of various objects will elicit.