I anticipate the alarm clock going off every morning, saving me from my fight with crippling anxiety. Once upon a time, I would hop out of bed ready to attack the day, make wudu and observe my Muslim prayers. These days, I oversleep the proper time for Fajr, and instead shamefully raise my hands to the Gods of Zuckerberg and his numerous tools of mind and time control. My preferred cult is Instagram. Between the low-hanging fruit of comedic stunts and celebrity worship, saturated sneaker drops and basketball highlights, dense nuggets of fine art pop through the surface. Throughout the day, I find a new artist, artwork and exhibition that provides a burst of light and recalibrates my motivation. Excerpts of critical theory and sharp prose sync into my retina display via an endless loop of reposts, mentions and screenshots. When my timeline isn’t doing it for me, the circles of stories provide a brief glimpse into the spaces of artists, from their studios to their fashion options. Instagram, like most social media platforms, is a perfect storm of mindless pop culture, hilarious memes, political annoyance, eye candy, and inspirational solar power. Many of today’s fine artists often wonder how they can either harness its power to benefit their career, or the total opposite, deleting apps from their smartphones in order to improve their practice and mental health. In my case, I just want to find balance. Let it be a tool, not a cancer. What’s the point of having all of this technology if we can’t use it? Wouldn’t Basqiat have loved to hold Instagram in his hands? I often think about how artists of yesterday would have used social media if it existed in their time. Sadly, I think most would not have been able to handle it, or shunned its presence altogether. It takes a special personality to thrive online and resist the negative gratification that comes with. But, what if? There is no artist, living or dead, who I would love to follow and subscribe to more than Romare Bearden. I think he would kill it on Instagram.
In July of 2010, Kevin Systrom and Mike Krieger founded an application created to share photos with cool vintage and creative filters. Burbn, its original name, was launched as Instagram in October of that year and less than two years later, it was acquired by Facebook for $1 billion in cash and some stock, literally building its social currency and power ever since. While Facebook is the biggest social media app in the world, and Tik Tok will be the biggest app in the world very soon, it is Instagram that gives the artist the best of everything. Large, static photographs with filters. Videos with music. A grid design you can organize to display its own artwork. I joined the platform in 2011 during my final deployment to Europe with the US Army, and oddly enough, take pride in being one of the original users of both Instagram and its older, currently unpopular cousin, Twitter (Thanks, Elon). Instagram is where all your favorite celebrities, athletes, models and fashion designers live. As the saying goes, “nobody really uses Facebook anymore”, with the exception of 2 billion people like your mom, grandmother and, apparently, the most important voting bloc of the 2016 election. But Instagram? This is where Will Smith, Beyonce, LeBron James, Taylor Swift, Kim Kardashian and just about everybody else you want to know gives a filtered glimpse into their world. This includes some of your favorite visual artists. My current following list includes superstars like Glenn Ligon and Hank Willis Thomas, mid-career artists like Paul Mpagi Sepuya and Noah Anderson, art thinkers like Sir Sargent and Legacy Russell, and many more. If only I could add the multi-layered genius of Romare Bearden to my thousands of follows.
Romare Bearden is known today as a great collage artist, and if you dig deep into the scholarship on his work, you will discover a deserved reputation for being one of, if not the first Black modernists of the 20th century. He has enjoyed critical acclaim for his many approaches to engaging with the Black experience through art, literature and music. Every few years, you will find renewed interest, “Beardenmania” even, as his collages, paintings and prints become the subject of new exhibitions, anthologies and visiting lectures. Only through this tremendous scholarship, most notably the efforts of prominent Bearden scholars Robert G. O’Meally, Mary Schmidt Campbell and Bearden’s niece, Diedra Harris-Kelley, am I even able to formulate my own connection to Bearden’s legacy. But even all this attention falls just short of bringing Romare’s legacy into its total and final formation: it stops just before connecting him to young artists working today. Referring to Bearden as a modernist tells a worthy story and gives his work the discursive and academic canonization it deserves, but does this appeal to the young self-taught upstart showing his work on his timeline? Does it need to? I say yes.
Romare Bearden’s ability to acknowledge, then tear down the conventions both inside and outside of Black artmaking is decades ahead of its time, putting him directly in context with contemporary artists today. The typical artist on your timeline wishes desperately to succeed in bending and breaking all the rules to their will; with only the best achieving the elusive badges of critical acclaim in the canon of fine art, rising value in the private and public collector market, social currency in the community and commercial success in the realms of popular culture. Bearden became one of those rare artists in the late 20th century, and his physical location inside the apex of Black cultural output literally put him in the center of where Instagram figuratively sat in the 1960s. Black communities today tend to form inside digital landscapes; examples being Black Twitter and the “innanets” of Instagram, where contemporary meme culture thrives. Legacy Russell writes about internet-based identities in Glitch Feminism. Andre Brock Jr. writes about African-American Cybercultures in Distributed Blackness. The internet and the apps it manipulates are where Blackness thrives, but pre-internet and the invention of the smartphone, Harlem, New York was Black Twitter and Instagram. Duke Ellington bought an oil piece from Bearden’s first exhibit, and his Harlem studio boasted downstairs neighbors like artist Jacob Lawrence and poet Claude McKay. As Bearden’s longtime manager June Kelly stated, his extroverted personality and the fact that “being around people fueled him with ideas” would make Bearden a perfect account to follow.
There are many more contributing factors to Bearden’s ability to be just as relevant today as he was during his prime between 1960 and the1980s. We have to go back to his origins to explore how these tentacles were grown. A native of Charlotte, North Carolina, his family moved to Harlem when he was just three years old. He would spend the next twelve years dividing his time between Charlotte, Harlem, Canada (where his father would find work) and Pittsburgh, where he would stay with relatives, learn how to draw and graduate from high school. Next, he spent a couple of years in Boston, where he became a star pitcher who turned down a chance to play in the majors. This decision led him back to New York University, where his career as an artist began. Bearden menteed and practiced as a cartoonist, published articles as a cultural critic, and brushed gouache on brown paper, all while carrying a day job as a caseworker for the NY Department of Social Services. This ability to shape-shift and assimilate into multiple environments and occupations supports the “hustling” or “grinding” culture that runs rampant in social media circles today. The name of the game is to keep trying new things, until you find the one that works. Bearden would try something else new, joining the US Army in 1942 where he served for three years, honorably discharged with the rank of Sergeant. From 1945–1950, Bearden cultivated a growing practice as a painter working in watercolor, ink and other wet mediums. I like to imagine that 1950, the year he used his GI Bill to fund a trip to Paris, would become one of the early highlights of his “Instagram career”.
To be a star on Instagram is the hardest, easiest thing in the world. Might be hard to get the fire started, but once it does, it spreads fast. Hopefuls fork over thousands of dollars in advertising, PR assistance, comedy skits and memes, or worse, pay robots to spam every account its algorithm can find. Opinion-peddlers search for ways to shock a desensitized audience. Salespeople endorse and sell anything to become monetized. Models show as much skin as possible without being banned for violating “community guidelines”. Millennials perform outrageous pranks in public. Celebrity and wealth is worshiped and, worst of all, kids, pets and food are exploited for eyeballs and double-taps. Somewhere in all of this self-promotion and attention-seeking are people who actually have something to say, serve communities, and spread positive energy, and when you can find a pack of people who can do all of these things together, the power and growth is exponential. Imagine then, a young Romey (as he was affectionately called by his loved ones), in his kitchen cooking potatoes in a frying pan “big enough to hold a person”, as he and Albert Murray listen to James Baldwin recite the early scribblings of Go Tell It On The Mountain? All happening with the beautiful landscapes of Paris as the background. A match made in Instagram heaven.
Of course, any conversation about Romare Bearden must focus on collage, as that is the work that made him the forefather of my own practice. But there was a monumental event that occurred years prior to his marriage with collage, and that was his marriage to Nanette Rohan. This relationship would change Bearden’s life and potentially could have made him an Instagram star. The scholarship of Mary Schmidt Campbell, author of An American Odyssey: The Life and Work of Romare Bearden and speaker at his April 1988 memorial service, aims to amplify Nanette’s role in Romare’s life, and rightfully so. Nanette is credited with nursing him back to good health after his nervous breakdown, bringing a family-centric peace to his life, tangibly boosting his art career and influencing him to return to figurative artmaking. In the context of Instagram, it would be a bonus that she just also happened to be a stunning model, starring in images that would help to challenge the “perception of Black women”. This couldn’t be more helpful for his career, if he were to be on the app today, as the hashtag “Black love” continues to trend in the millions. Nanette’s career in dance and fashion played a huge role in Bearden’s life as well, and this also could contribute nicely towards his social media popularity. Present day examples like NBA all-star Dwayne Wade and his actress wife Gabrielle Union combine fashion, Black and Queer activism and, of course, basketball to make 34 million people fans of the work they do together. Black love, female entrepreneurship and standing for a cause are perfect ingredients for social media virality.
In the late 1950s, Bearden was rejuvenated by his wife, inspired from his trip to Paris and motivated by the new ideas that were beginning to take shape in his mind. Not a fan of promoting civil rights through his art, Bearden was still in search of the right way to deal with the “Negro Artist’s Dilemma” that he outlined in his 1946 essay of the same title. Amongst many other issues, he identified key concerns as it pertained to negro artists: patronizing attitudes, artificial and arbitrary standards and sociological concerns being prioritized over aesthetic concerns. “This concept of the Negro artist as an odd personality, rather than as a mature individual, has been both insulting and harmful”, said Bearden. This dilemma, to have his work be judged on its artistic qualities, and not its utility as racial propaganda, while also speaking to the authentic experiences and needs of a growing and changing Black community, was at the forefront of his mind. In directing his work back towards figuration, due in part to his 1961 trips to France, Italy and Switzerland with his wife, he found new energy inside the many fashion magazines his wife kept in the home. The pages of Vogue, Ebony and Harper’s Bazaar became the tools for a new twist to Black figuration nobody ever seen before. His earliest known collage to date, Harlequin, thought to be made in 1956, finds Bearden flirting with forming the figure from abstract shapes and patches of color and space. Years later, he would merge this sensibility into the style of collage that would help make him an icon.
Bearden’s first exhibited collages were his Projections, a group of small-scale photomontages that were blown up in black and white photostats, figuratively “projecting” from the surface, as said by then gallerist Arne Ekstrom. In these works, you see the aesthetic maturity described so eloquently by Toni Morrison. She wrote “the collage technique employed by several modernist artists was taken to new levels by Bearden, and reflects the ‘fractured’ life he depicts”. The “not just porous” but also liquid borders that Bearden demonstrated in his work, allowing jazz, history, literature and all Black experiences to take shape in his work, but not reduce the work to mere social statements. This merging of Black cultural outputs in figurative form would mesh perfectly with today’s Instagram art world, as the frenzy for Black art in the wake of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd and other Black people is in a temporary upswing. Numerous curated accounts exist solely for the purpose to promote art made by Black artists. This isn’t all positive, of course, as more demand and interest in Black artists does not mean more respect and equity for Black art. In the summer of 2020, a firestorm on social media erupted after the Whitney Museum of American Art announced they would be planning an exhibition featuring the work of numerous Black photographers who donated prints to the See In Black initiative in solidarity with the “Black Lives Matter” movement. The prints were sold at a large discount, so that communities of color can buy into artists’ work while the profit would be used to fundraise for causes in support of BLM. Whitney curator Farris Wahbeh decided this was a great opportunity to make a statement, and collected dozens of artworks at far lower than the artists’ usual prices, without permission, and planned the exhibition. In exchange, each participating artist was offered a lifetime pass to the Whitney. Artists I follow were flooding my timeline with passionate rebukes in solidarity with the wronged artists. I can imagine Romare Bearden, with his history of organizing artist activism, would have been front and center in the protest against this show. This also would contribute greatly to his Instagram profile.
Bearden is not without his controversies. A principled critic and proponent of artists’ rights, he also is a product of an accomplished, high profile mother and middle-class Black family, steeped in respectability politics “upheld by the women who surrounded him” in his younger years. How would some of his views land in today’s extremely progressive, anti-respectability, hostile to passive liberalism landscape? Would his views of being firmly against all-Black artist exhibitions land him in hot water, or worse, get him “canceled”? This also could work in his favor, or harden his fans’ love for him and his work. Contemporary examples include neo-soul superstar and your favorite “Auntie” Erykah Badu, who found herself almost canceled in 2019 after appearing to lend support to shamed singer R. Kelly during a concert in Chicago. This gaffe did not do much damage to her credibility in the Black community, as Badu has a strong reputation for being free-minded and standing her ground against backlash. In the end, it just ended up being another episode where some disagreed with her, while most accepted that she will always be honest and be herself. I would imagine Romare to be the same way.
My Instagram following could use a recharge. I have a decent number of followers at just over forty-two hundred, but I’ve been near that number for some time now. When I first started, I just wanted to be seen. Then, as my work evolved, I found my voice. My earlier work, motivations and inspirations were very similar to Bearden’s. Today, I have a love/hate relationship with my Instagram account. While I spend a lot of time scrolling and engaging with my followers, I hesitate to consistently do the tasks that could lead to immense growth. But I am ready to change that and try this Instagram thing again. Perhaps, I could learn a thing or two by imagining what Romey would do.