‘When I conjure these memories, they are of the present to me, because after all, the artist is a kind of enchanter in time.’
So said the African-American artist Romare Bearden (1911-1988) – the man from whom the contemporary beatmaker Romare takes his name (1).
Bearden rose to prominence in 1964 with Projections, a series of startling collages, one of which – The Dove – is featured in the large image above (2). In these works, he used cut paper, paint, ink, wallpaper samples, fragments of architectural drawings and photographs from glossy magazines and newspapers to construct a dizzying vision of past and present African-American experience. Even though collage was old hat at the time, Bearden appropriated the form and forged his own language with it. He drew freely on his childhood memories of both rural Carolina and urban Harlem, of jazz, of migration, of sharecropping, of backwoods magical belief, of urban energy and atomisation, in a vocabulary that drew on both modernist painting and the composition and religious symbolism of the old masters he had studied during his years in both Paris and New York. The faces of the people in these works are multi-faceted photomontages, made from patterns and textures, swatches of vegetation, animal eyes, African tribal masks. Eyes are often superimposed on them that are disturbingly out of scale. The overall effect can be discombobulating – yet Bearden’s talent for balancing space and colour means they possess a striking harmony on which one’s eyes keep needing to gorge themselves.
If you missed his first EP, here’s one of its highlights, the irresistible ‘Down The Line’:
What’s fascinating about this music is its sheer ambition. For Romare is attempting to do nothing less than collage the vast and many-storied history of African-American music in order to reconfigure it into startling new forms. So we find worksongs, blues licks, spirituals and elements of R&B rubbing up against their descendants – hip hop, ghetto house, jungle, footwork – to create a singular and astonishingly original hybrid.
And like the collages of Romare Bearden, it is difficult to get to grips with everything that’s going on in the sensory field. Both of Romare’s EPs are instantly likeable and yet deviously hard to grasp. It takes real concentration to focus on them, so quixotic are they, moving from one element to the next, playing virtuosically – as Bearden did – with effects of scale.
On top of that, the records are not just addictive beats but essays in the proper sense of the word: tries, attempts, that aim to grapple with difficult subjects and extend an invitation to the listener to join in a dialogue. The track ‘Footnotes’ (3), a 13-minute collection of spoken word samples relating to the African-American experience and how it is portrayed, raises uncomfortable questions which even challenge the validity of Romare’s own work: does the fact that a white European is making this music make it an act of cultural appropriation? Are these records respectful homages or grievous insults, acts of allusion or outrageous theft? And, even if this is indeed thievery, can theft be justified if the artist is fashioning something truly remarkable? As T.S.Eliot said of poets who steal from each other: ‘The good poet welds his theft into a whole of feeling which is unique, utterly different than that from which it was torn.'(4) But can Romare claim to have done the same?
For me, the answer is an unequivocal yes. Take the opening track from Love Songs itself: ‘Your Love (You Give Me Fever)‘. Within seconds the sonic palette has drawn on a headspinning array of tropes: there’s a chord progression that is pure mid-90s drum and bass; a rhythm track that combines both late 80s house and contemporary footwork; a riffed-upon sample of Peggy Lee’s ‘Fever’ that is, quite frankly, a hip hop cliché. Even the title sends your mind spiralling in another direction to another tune (Jamie Principle’s classic, ‘Your Love‘). And then, the dynamics of the tune use the build-to-climax technique of any number of house and techno tunes which is intentionally not delivered – a technique Romare has already used in ‘Down the Line’ – as if to say, ‘I can send your mind down any number of pathways – but beware: everything here is not what you first expect.’
But so what? you might say. What makes this more special than any number of tunes released in the last year? There are plenty of artists melding musical genres, after all.
To answer that, let’s go back to Bearden and the social realist work he did before Projections. Here’s a painting of black factory workers from 20 years earlier – an accomplished work, yes, but why do the Projections like The Dove affect us more profoundly? (5)
Part of the answer is that these realist paintings merely document contemporary African-American experience, whereas the collages do much, much more: they reveal something that wasn’t fully known about not just African-American experience but our universal experience of a befuddling modern world. Bearden’s visual art was defamiliarising for his contemporary audience. It challenged them to think and perceive the lives of their fellow men and their own lives in a new way. The pavement in The Dove is striated and opens at points to reveal darkness below: the ground beneath our feet is no longer stable; we cannot be sure of the basis on which we proceed.
And the difference between Bearden’s realist paintings and his collages is the difference between Romare and many contemporary artists. We’re all familiar with house tracks which take a spoken word sample – Gil Scott-Heron, say, or Malcolm X – and let it sit on top of music that would have existed anyway. We all know what I call ‘influence tunes’: tracks where artists name-check their heroes over beats, hip hop or house. (These can be fine things, I do not mention them pejoratively). But Romare’s music, like Bearden’s collages, is doing much more. Romare’s music is refamiliarising. It challenges us to refocus our dissipated attention on material and experience we already know about but neglect too easily. It re-asserts the importance of a glittering diversity of African-American music in shaping a (musical) world we take for granted. And this is the very form of the music, not just its content.
At the top of this piece I quoted Romare Bearden – ‘When I conjure these memories, they are of the present to me, because after all, the artist is a kind of enchanter in time.’ If I were to remix this quote for Romare, it would go something like this: ‘When I conjure these memories, they are of the present to you, because after all, the listener is a kind of enchanter in time.’ We are different from Bearden’s contemporary audience. We are no longer just bombarded by information and experience from an array of new media sources; now, we take a role in actively managing information, amalgamating it, shaping it, improvising with it to make something new. Bearden’s art is a response to the age of mass media. Romare’s music is a manifestation of the age of the internet and social media; it makes us enchanters in time.
I’m not saying that all dance music should be like this. But I do wish there was more contemporary electronic music that had this scope and ambition and quality of execution. I wish more artists paid attention to the 12″ as a holistic artefact, where the sleeve art (with the addition of musical footnotes or even sleeve notes) adds further nuances to our experience of the music. And I wish that there were more EPs where the tracks are not discrete entities but relate to each other to create a multi-faceted whole.
Most importantly, I wish that there was more work that was unashamedly political like this: for let us not forget that the works of both Bearden the visual artist and Romare the musician cannot be anything but political acts in the context of a rampant inequality that existed 50 years ago and still exists today. The world doesn’t have to be like this – and artists should be damn well saying so. And they should be saying so in ways that challenge the people their audience have become (sometimes in spite of that audience’s best intentions).
Why the hell wouldn’t you wish for that?
(1) The opening quote comes from Neda Ulaby’s The Art of Romare Bearden: Collages Fuse Essence of Old Harlem, American South, NPR, 2003 (source: wikipedia).
(3) Featured only on the digital release.
(4) The quote in full from Eliot’s essay on Philip Massinger in The Sacred Wood (1920) is: ‘One of the surest tests [of the superiority or inferiority of a poet] is the way in which a poet borrows. Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different. The good poet welds his theft into a whole of feeling which is unique, utterly different than that from which it is torn; the bad poet throws it into something which has no cohesion. A good poet will usually borrow from authors remote in time, or alien in language, or diverse in interest.’ I owe the precise reference to Nancy Prager’s Protect and Leverage blog – with thanks.
(5) Factory Workers, 1942. I wouldn’t have known this painting without Rachael DeLue’s excellent essay Conjure and Collapse in the Art of Romare Burden (2012), via nonsite.org.
Romare’s ‘Down The Line (It Takes A Number)’ is also featured here: PGP Mix 1 – His Lips are Warm and Sweet. Go check.