Okay, so admit it. When your 10th grade English teacher announced that you'd be spending two weeks reading and discussing Homer's "Odyssey", there was a collective "Ugh" from you and your fellow classmates. What could possibly be interesting about 12,000+ lines of poetry that were penned some 3,000 years ago? Yes, "The Odyssey" had everything that should be interesting to a teenager--gore, self-loathing, personal discovery, lies and love--but the delivery of those concepts was unbelievably obtuse.
Fast forward to 2013, and the thought of retrieving your dusty copies of "The Odyssey" and "The Iliad" from the attic no longer fills you with dread. In fact, you realize that part of your collective cultural literacy is predicated on your knowledge of Homer's stories. It's time to read, to digest, to swim in the epic language that put the drama in dramatic. What could more compelling than words like this, from "The Illiad": "I beg you, Achilles, by your own soul and by your parents, do not allow the dogs to mutilate my body . . . And Achilles fixing him with a stare, 'Don't whine to me about my parents. You dog! I wish my stomach would let me cut off your flesh in strips and eat it raw for what you've done to me . . ."
Homer's characters reveal the spectrum of human emotion--from rage to passion and pride to love and loyalty. Perhaps that's one of the many reasons American artist Romare Bearden (1911-1988) found inspiration in Homer's verses. He began visually interpreting "The Iliad" in 1946, and in 1977-78, Bearden created a series collages and watercolors based on "The Odyssey." Both groups of images are now part of the traveling exhibition "Romare Bearden: A Black Odyssey." These works reveal Bearden's ability to take something familiar and make it fresh, unexpected, and modern.
That was our challenge too, when we wanted to make Bearden's works more accessible, not just to those visiting the exhibition, but to people everywhere, with interests in the humanities, art, literature, and music. The culmination of many hours of round table discussions, brainstorming sessions, writing, and testing is a new iPad app called "Romare Bearden: Black Odyssey Remixes."
Just as Bearden re-imagined Homer, we wanted users to remix Bearden and the themes in "The Odyssey", a process that the artist himself would have appreciated (we think :-). The app allows users to select a canvas from one Bearden's "Odyssey" scenes and completely re-invent it by dragging pre-cut or custom-drawn shapes onto the canvas. Users can colorize those shapes, add textures via the iPad's camera, and add words to their creations.
To layer on an auditory dimension, the app includes an inventive sound mixer that allows users to mash up an accompanying soundtrack of hip-hop, ocean waves, birds, jazz, and myriad other sound clips. After all, Romare Bearden's works were infused with music--in their style and execution. In Homer's time too, music and storytellling went hand and hand.
In the end, the app is marriage of a user's own story, with Homer's and Bearden's. And, when that story has been perfected, users can publish their remixes into an online gallery, email their art, and share their works via Facebook or Twitter. Homer and Bearden, meet the epic storytellers in the year 2013.
P.S. This collage app has just won both a Museums and the Web 2013 Honorable Mention and an American Alliance of Museums Media and Technology Muse Gold Award for 2013. Please check the collage app as well as the companion audio tour, a great introduction into Homer's classic story (also an award winner)!