I teach a portrait collage workshop titled Conjur Woman, inspired by the artist Romare Bearden.
What is a conjur woman? She is a real woman who practices magical arts. Conjure women supposedly can heal or destroy. For Romare Bearden, Conjur Woman was about ritual, magic and memories.
Bearden spelled conjure without and “e.” She was a woman who knew herbs and prepared love potions and gave counsel on family matters. Bearden spoke about how he remembered being frightened of her as a boy when he visited family in Charlotte, NC where he was born.
Many art historians consider Romare Bearden (African-American 1911-1988) one of the most important collage artists of the 20th century. He is best known for the collages he made beginning in the 1960s, continuing with collage as his primary media until his death in 1988.
Conjur Woman (1975), seen above, is collage with magazine papers, Photostat reproductions and Color-Aid (silkscreen) papers, image size: 46×36 inches.
Look at the image nearby of Bearden’s Conjur Woman (1971), composed almost entirely with black and white papers (collage on paperboard, image size: 22×16 inches).
Notice the bold green collage papers that frame her face and is her nose. Do you see the birds? Do you think this Conjur Woman is a healer or a destroyer?
I love this image and will make my own portrait collage, with this work as inspiration.
I have to interpret the women I’ve known, including very powerful women in my own family. I remember tea leaf readings, ESP, and clairvoyance.
All the people who attend my Conjur Woman workshops have been women of a certain age (around age 40 and up). They are urban, and suburban. Some are women of color. They are a mix of retirees, working professionals, a few artists and art teachers. One exception was a young and successful entrepreneur from India named Anil. All the women in the workshop loved the fact that a man had joined our group! He started a collage with paint and newspaper, but his real Conjur Woman collage was in another media. Anil created a video dance sequence of a nude model cavorting across a figure drawing classroom for his iPad.
I think Bearden would have loved the image and the technology.
In The Art of Romare Bearden, Ruth Fine wrote: Bearden’s themes were universal. He combined images of everyday African American life, his personal memories, classical literature, myth, music, religion and human ritual. I recommend this book for your collection. It’s filled with full-color images and several important essays on the life and work of the artist. It is the museum catalog for The Art of Romare Bearden, his solo exhibition at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC.
The image nearby is another Conjur Woman by Bearden, completed in 1964. It’s only 9×7 inches, and was created with snippets from newspapers and magazines such as Ebony and the Saturday Evening Post.
Bearden enlarged his small collages into Photostat black and white reproductions, which he called PROJECTIONS. The Photostat was a photographic process popular from the 1950s through the 1980s (now replaced with photocopies and digital technology).
The Photostats allowed Bearden to turn light skin into dark skin, and to reproduce clippings from Ebony, Life and Look magazines.
Bearden’s Projections were a sensation because they made his tiny collages into huge, graphically powerful black and white “prints.”
Some critics say Bearden’s work is influenced by Cubism.
Compare Bearden’s figures in his collage Prevalence of Ritual: Baptism (below) with Pablo Picasso’s Cubist painting Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (below). You may see the influence of Picasso on Bearden.
Les Demoiselles D’Avignon shocked and offended everyone for the way it was painted and its subject matter (women in a brothel). Picasso called the painting “my first exorcism painting.”
Do you see the influence of African art on Picasso?
The masklike faces in Picasso’s Demoiselles were obviously influenced by African masks and sculpture.
Romare Bearden was an avid student of art history, and understood that Picasso’s imagery was appropriated from African sculpture and masks.
Bearden filtered Cubism right back to its African roots
Bearden’s art bridged the gap between Western art and African art. He filtered Cubism right back.
TRY BEARDEN’S COLLAGE TECHNIQUE
You can make your own collage portrait of a Conjur Woman. She can be someone you know, a self-portrait, a figure in history, a song-siren, or a movie goddess. She can be fearful or enchanting or inspiring.
Look at Romare Bearden’s collages. Observe how his people are represented.
Look at how he fractured features, placed hands, distorted and juxtaposed the pieces that he put into the image. He did that deliberately. He didn’t want to use another person’s image or face. He wanted to make the image his own.
Observe the media Bearden used.
What are the main pieces? Are they photographs? Magazine cutouts? Drawings? Solid color or patterned papers? Fabric? Painted or silkscreened papers?
What is the image about? Can you make the image personal? Contemporary?
Think about how much color Bearden used and how much is black and white.
Notice if there are animals, birds and snakes in the background.
What would you add to your collage to make it personal?
Visit the Bearden Foundation for information about current exhibitions, new publications and lectures.
See and hear Bearden talk about his life and work at WORLD News.
I hope you are inspired by the art of Romare Bearden and make a Conjur Woman portrait collage.
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