My first conscious encounter of Nina Simone’s musical genius was a happenstance introduction—I wandered into a boutique in West Philly on a birthday stroll in my late teens and another woman in the boutique told me that she was getting a good feeling from my presence and then asked the owner of the store if she would be willing to play some Nina Simone to keep the vibe going as we browsed through their collection of crafts for sale. I believe ‘Four Women’ came on first. I became instantly intrigued by Simone as a musical figure. My love affair grew as I later found myself drenched in her albums, which were beyond captivating. The aural embrace was complemented by a deep dive into who Simone was as a person. Needless to say, her presence as a complicated figure and extraordinarily talented musician had a transcending impact on me as a visual artist.
My mixed media, three-dimensional portrait of Nina Simone is inspired by the many different elements that make up her genius. Simone, an aspiring classical pianist, never sought to be a protest singer, much like I don’t explicitly aim to be a polemical visual artist. Such titles surface as projections because of the bodies we occupy and how they over-determine our cultural trajectory. Fast forward, and I’m in one of my art classes, making a sculpture that explores the physical traits of a human body. During a class review I’m told that I should focus my craft on explaining what it’s like being specifically African American instead of simply human. I’m rarely privileged enough to make art for art’s sake without having to defend it, explain it, or respond to social happenings in the world. Simone, who adopted her infamous moniker to shield her from family criticism for performing secular music to earn money, wasn’t granted space to make the kind of classical music that she initially aspired towards. Her dream of becoming a classical pianist was all but destroyed in Philly after an audition at the esteemed Curtis Institute of Music. Nina Simone recounted the story repeatedly during her lifetime. She was not rejected because of her skills, “I was rejected because I was black”. By the height of her popularity, the name Nina Simone was synonymous with outrage, but this emotion’s origin, gleaned from her stage presence, became conflated with and used to describe her intimate person. This experience is akin to mine as a visual artist whose work is often bound to social constructions and designated as activist work, social justice work, and/or social commentary.
“What I was interested in was conveying an emotional message, which means using everything you’ve got inside you sometimes to barely make a note, or if you have to strain to sing, you sing.” Interpretative piano keys float over music notes in my painting of Nina Simone. There is little to no foundation to hold the mixed media pieces at bay besides a viewer’s imagination that forges a relationship that can not contain the components, much like the projection of the title activist-entertainer, an identity that is often uncritically associated with Black women performers, specifically Nina Simone. As a decadent addition to the canvas, I decided to show the interior strings that would normally connect to the piano keys from the inside of the piano, now on the outside leading up into a earphone glued on Nina Simone’s portrait as symbolism for how the world has access to pick at the strands of Nina Simone, the person.
Her body’s partial placement on the canvas wherein her head and hands appear like disjointed attachments invites a concern for how Nina Simone occupied celebrity and activism. In her later years, it seems that she merged the worlds in ways that made them appear effortless as musical accounts of the terror that Black people faced became a common theme in multiple songs that she released beginning in 1964. “Mississippi Goddamn” and “Young, Gifted, and Black” became some of her most recognizable protest songs that, to this day, circulate like Black anthems lamenting the unchanging continuum of America’s anti-blackness. However, the rejection, ridicule, and exclusion Simone experienced at the hands of white supremacists as well as representatives of masculinist-fronted Black social movements are not typically associated with these songs. I imagine there are so many parts of Simone that were suppressed and excluded from her art because of the limitations that the times she lived in applied to her. Her fragmented posture where her garment dissipates into paint splatters, then, is a manifestation of that threat—she delivers the song even as she is bursting to be free – while we spectate. Simone put her life in danger as people around her were being assassinated, but she had no choice but to make art about social change. When the body that we occupy dictates our relationship to activism, we endure sacrifices to which we don’t necessarily consent, such as a safe space to produce art just for art’s sake. Simone sacrificed playing songs like the “Moonlight Sonata” in luxurious places because she needed to create music that elevated the human soul and to expose the oppression that she was experiencing. “I am just one of the people who is sick of the social order, sick of the establishment, sick to my soul of it all. To me, America’s society is nothing but a cancer, and it must be exposed before it can be cured. I am not the doctor to cure it. All I can do is expose the sickness.”
Simone’s remarkable presence as a musician capable of making stingingly beautiful music because of its truthiness despite, or because of, her life’s complexity signifies why she is a work of art. My piece urges us to marvel at the desired whole, what that insatiable desire can produce, and who is touched by it. This piece reminds us that the things we consider heroic are the result of experiences endured, abandoned, and reclaimed, much like how Simone’s life story reveals the multiple times she has had to (re)claim control of her craftsmanship and identity. “I have to constantly re-identify myself to myself, reactivate my own standards, my own convictions about what I’m doing and why.”