In 1964, after three decades of living and working in Harlem, Bearden took up collage, cutting and combining found images and photographs to achieve new combinations defined by their fragmentation, texture, and layered depth. He used this approach to capture the complex facets of Black experience in the United States, often depicting scenes from everyday life in the rural South, which many African Americans left to move to northern cities during the Great Migration (1916–70), and scenes from Harlem. Throughout his career, Bearden reworked his own images in different mediums, including this collage, which is shown alongside a later photo reproduction.
Gallery label from 2022
Emerging from pieces of cut and torn found imagery, Bearden’s mysterious figure exists in both the past, particularly the rural southern life that many African Americans left behind as they moved to northern cities during the Great Migration (1916–70), and the present, as a frequent subject of his work in the 1960s and ’70s. Bearden’s collage technique, for which he is best known, was especially suited to capture this figure: his masterful combination of disparate images, drawn from a variety of sources to create a new being, mimics the transitional role of one who operated between worldly and spiritual planes. His conjur woman, a figure familiar from his own childhood and to many African Americans in general, is magical, both admired and feared for her supernatural abilities and mastery of natural elements; here she floats amid the plants that provide raw material for her medicines and spells. A raised black hand hovers over her shoulder, both a sign from another realm and a perch for a bird.
The year before he made The Conjur Woman, Bearden gathered a group of African American artists in his New York studio to talk about their role and responsibilities in a changing America. His depiction of this figure from black culture, an acknowledgment of her influence explored in a modern visual language, is a powerful example of his response to those discussions.
Publication excerpt from MoMA Highlights: 375 Works from The Museum of Modern Art, New York (New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 2019)