Romare Bearden: Conjur Woman and Collage

Romare Bearden: Conjur Woman 1975

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.

Read about Bearden’s childhood and early influences.

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.

Conjur Woman 1971

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.

Romare Bearden, Conjur Woman (1964)

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.

Romare Bearden: Prevalence of Ritual-Baptism (1964)
Pablo Picasso:Les Demoiselles D’Avignon (1907)

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.


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.

Thank you for reading this post. Thank you for your comments below.

12 thoughts on “Romare Bearden: Conjur Woman and Collage

  1. Greetings Nancy…I just read your wonderful blog this evening… I am planning to attend a 100th anniversary celebration of Romare Bearden in Charlotte, NC at the Mint Museum this fall… I have long been intrigued with collage; especially as it relates to Bearden’s art… I would love to attend one of your workshops…Do you have any plans to present them in locals in the Midwest?…
    I look forward to reading your future postings.
    Roberta Dean

    1. Hi Roberta, I am so glad you liked the content of my blog and thank you for mentioning the 100th anniversary Bearden celebration at the Mint Museum. I will follow up and try to visit and see the exhibition. Please tell me what Bearden work you like best. Have you made any collage that is inspired by his art? I don’t have plans for a collage workshop in the Midwest, but I will post more blogs with how-to do collage inspired by Bearden. Best regards, Nancy

  2. Greetings Nancy,
    I sat down today to do some continued research on the upcoming celebration of the Bearden exhibit at the Mint in Charlotte,NC… I came across your blog response…I apologize that I hadn’t gotten back to you…I don’t consider myself to be artistic so I have never attempted to do collage…As a result of your response, I think that I will try to do some collage…My favorite works of Bearden are the Conjur Woman series… There is something very primal and organic about those works that appeals to my soul…Let me know if you plan to attend the Mint exhibit…
    Best regards,
    Roberta Dean

    1. Hi Roberta,

      Thank you for the continuing dialog about Bearden. I agree – Conjur Woman is very primal and organic. Women (almost always) who attend my workshops respond in totally personal ways, depending on their age and ethnicity. I hope you will do some collage. Email me if you want info and feedback to do one: nancy (at) nikkal (dot) com.

      Because of your comments, I know about the Romare Bearden Society and the Bearden show that opens at the Mint Museum in Sept. 2011. I will make every effort to see the show and learn more about the Museum’s Bearden collection.

  3. Hi Nancy,
    In response to your encouragement for me to try to do some collage… I love textiles and have a large cadre of fabric remnants that I have collected during my thrift store outings… I think that I will try to interpret some of Bearden’s works on kimono-type garments… I usually draw designs and have a local artisan sew up the results… If I follow through on this proposed project, I will send you a picture of the completed garment…
    Thank you for sharing your passion for art…

    1. Hi Roberta,

      Good luck with the kimono project. How big are do you work? I can hardly wait to see what you create and look forward to seeing images.

  4. Greetings Nancy…I hope that all is going well with you… I met with two designers today and selected one who will guide me through the process of my “dream to reality” collage kimono. As this is my first time undertaking a project such as this, it will probably be a while before I have a finished product. In the meantime, I will continue to read your blog… it is a wonderful source of inspiration to me.

  5. Romare Bearden is one of America’s greatest artists of the 20th century. He fused old world and new world, black and white, memory and fantasy. A true artist that we as American’s should be justly proud.

    1. Hi Larry, You sound like an expert on Romare Bearden. You said it all perfectly. Thank you for the comments.

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