Chaotic, colorful collage with four faces in profile, birds, boats, the Campanile, arms raised in protest, Native Californians, early settlers, miners, the Berkeley Marina and much much more
Romare Bearden: ‘Final Study for Berkeley – The City and Its People, 1973’; collage on board; University of California, Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive; Gift of Dr. and Mrs. David Dragutsky © 2023 Romare Bearden Foundation / Licensed by VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY

If you head over to BAMPFA’s new collection show, “What Has Been and What Could Be,” you’ll find 107 works on display — from 17th-century Japanese scrolls to mid-century abstract painting, feminist art and quilts. 

Take a close look at a chaotic, colorful collage made by the New York-based artist Romare Bearden and you’ll likely recognize an iconic civic symbol emblazoned on everything from trash cans to city notices: four overlapping faces in profile. 

Together, the faces inspired the city of Berkeley’s logo. They represent, Bearden said, the four races of man and are “set over a blueprint for a better world, which the students and people of Berkeley will augment.”

The 21-by-32-inch collage on view at BAMPFA was a study for a larger, 10.5-by-16-foot mural titled “Berkeley — The City and Its People,” which was commissioned by the city for $16,000 in 1971 to redecorate the drab-looking City Council chamber. Bearden was selected at the recommendation of Peter Selz, the Berkeley Art Museum’s founding director.

Chaotic, colorful collage with four faces in profile, birds, boats, the Campanile, arms raised in protest, Native Californians, early settlers, miners, the Berkeley Marina and much much more
The city mural, currently in storage in Oakland, is nearly identical to the final study on view at BAMPFA. Credit: City of Berkeley

Bearden came of age during the Harlem Renaissance and later became one of the most acclaimed American artists of the 20th century for his narrative collages that depict the Black experience. In 1963, along with a group of fellow artists, Bearden founded an African American artist collective born out of the Civil Rights Movement. He was awarded the National Medal of the Arts in 1987 by President Ronald Reagan.

Romare Bearden. Credit: Carl Van Vechten. Courtesy: Library of Congress

While much of his work centered Black life and culture, according to his New York Times obituary, Bearden (who had Cherokee, Italian, and African ancestry) argued for a multicultural understanding of what it meant to be American, rejecting the notion that his work was “black art.” “Except for the American Indian, everybody who came here or was brought here becomes, starting with the second generation, four things: Part Anglo-Saxon, part Indian, part frontiersman and part black,” Bearden said. “These are the roots that form American culture.”

Bearden’s selection for the mural project received pushback from some conservative Berkeleyans, as Lauren Kroiz, an art history professor at Cal, has written

The Berkeley Citizens United newsletter took issue with the time he spent in racially diverse flatland neighborhoods (he conducted research throughout the city) and, in articles rife with racism and stereotypes, asked readers to imagine “filth” and “degradation” — “a collage of Black Panthers waving clenched fists, filthy tent hovels at People’s Park, street revolutionaries tearing down the fence [at People’s Park], drug addicts lying stoned on Telegraph Avenue, Berkeley Communists waving the Viet Cong flag, Berkeley barbarians rampaging through the streets, looting, smashing, burning.” 

That was far from what Bearden had in mind. 

“Rather than foreground the contemporary sites and symbols of dissent registered in Black Power, counterculture, and Third World liberation as BCU worried,” Kroiz wrote. “Bearden represented Berkeley to its citizens by layering representations of people and landmarks, past and present, in photography, paint and colored papers.”

Read more about the creation of Bearden’s mural and its continued resonance

Included in the mural are Native Californians, early settlers, miners, the Campanile, the Berkeley Marina and more. In it, Berkeley’s civic strife, iconic symbols, messy diversity and striving for harmony are placed in dynamic tension. 

Bearden wrote in his description that it “symbolizes the past, the present, and the future possibilities of the city.”

What Has Been and What Could Be, BAMPFA. On view through July 2024.

Iris Kwok covers the environment for Berkeleyside through a partnership with Report for America. A former music journalist, her work has appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle, KQED, San Francisco Examiner...