Oil on Canvas, 24/01/2019 – Black Activist Nina Simone
Oil on Canvas, 24/01/2019 – Black Activist James Baldwin
About these Nina Simone & James Baldwin Oil Paintings
I chose to paint Baldwin with a mellow yellow compared to Simone, who has a reddish undertone to it because of the energy that she gives off in her performances.
Their faces which can’t be contained by the canvas, a zoom-in. I like to dig a bit deeper into why they do or say what they did, I check out the biographies and interviews behind their work. There’s a reason why they’re so well loved and known!
Their eyes are the obvious focus, they’ve always drawn me in, so I’ve exaggerated them.
I chose to do the image of Nina singing in Stars, because it’s such an intense performance, and I ended up doing Baldwin looking off to the side in thought, because he is a thinker and an observer.
“I’ll tell you what freedom is to me… No Fear!”
She’s the voice behind my favourite version of the song that goes ‘It’s a new dawn it’s a new day it’s a new life, and I’m Feeling Good’, and the dark optimism in ‘Ain’t got no/ I got Life’
I really fell in love with her though when I saw her perform her first activist song ‘Mississippi Goddamn’, which she wrote within an hour about the racially charged murder of 37 year old civil rights activist Edgar Meyers. She sings “Keep on sayin’ ‘go slow’…to do things gradually would bring more tragedy. Why don’t you see it? Why don’t you feel it? I don’t know, I don’t know. You don’t have to live next to me, just give me my equality! “
She really gets into it, she is clearly pissed off:
which naturally led me to ‘Young, Gifted & Black’ , which she sang as an affirmation during a time when it was daring to proclaim it.
And ‘The Backlash Blues’:
“When I try to find a job
To earn a little cash
All you got to offer
Is your mean old white backlash
But the world is big
Big and bright and round
And it’s full of folks like me
Who are black, yellow, beige and brown
Mr. Backlash, I’m gonna leave you
With the backlash blues”
She was an activist through her music – bringing the message of self love, sharing your story, feeling your feelings.
“I choose to reflect the times and situations we’re living in. That to me is my duty.”
On a more personal level, as someone with a Jamaican heritage her words on identity resonated with me:
“I want to make [young black people] more curious about where they came from, and their identity. We don’t know anything about ourselves, we don’t even know where we came from. It’s like a lost race”.
I loved the way she embraced her African heritage in a culture that rejected it, with her style & dark skin. I love the song ‘Obeah Woman’ (‘I can eat thunder and drink the rain […] ain’t nothing I can’t do’).
How she described being in Liberia as being home & free, she said how “It was vast, and open, and everything was natural. I have seen lightening in Africa not flash, but hover! And it electrifies you into complete speechlessness. I have seen it!”
I love how at 8 years old, when her parents were sent to the back of the room during her piano performance, she refused to play until they were seated at the front.
There’s a documentary about her on Netflix called What Happened, Miss Simone? – I highly recommend it.
She’s still human, and had plenty of flaws, no one is blind to that. She didn’t believe in non-violence, and she had her demons. But what I love most about her is her authenticity, how she didn’t shy away from exposing her feelings on screen, or her temper, hilariously spied in her performance of Stars in this youtube clip, which I based my painting off of.
“We all have a story”, she sings, and she inspires me to tell mine.
Needless to say, I really love Nina Simone.
“Someone has to find a way to put the present administration on the spot.”
I’ve done inks of James Baldwin a few times – he’s just so quotable, paintable, so photogenic – and as I’ve mentioned before, an eloquent promoter of forgiveness and loving one another, despite everything that a gay black man raised in Harlem like himself would have had to live through. “I did not believe that all white people were devils, and I did not want young black people to believe that.”
One of his observations that really struck me from a while ago was his observation of his contemporary black civil rights activists:
“As concerns Malcom and Martin, I watched two men, coming from unimaginably different backgrounds, whose positions, originally, were poles apart, driven closer and closer together.
By the time each died, their positions had become virtually the same position. It can be said, indeed, that Martin picked up Malcolm burden, articulated the vision which Malcolm had begun to see, and for which he paid with his life. And that Malcolm was one of the people Martin saw on the mountain top.
Medgar was too young to have seen this happen, though he hoped for it, and would not have been surprised; but Medgar was murdered first.
I was older than Medgar, Malcolm and Martin. I was raised to believe that the eldest was supposed to be a model for younger, and was, of course, expected to die first.
Not one of these three lived to be forty.”
“I had to accept, as time wore on, that part of my responsibility – as a witness – was to write the story, and to get it out”.
I really love this man, and the film “I am not your Negro” by Raoul Peck really does it justice, so watch that as well as all his Youtube clips and of course, his essays. I got hooked in first by The Fire Next Time, which I highly recommend.
Check out my Baldwin inks here.
Click here to visit my shop for more Nina & James printed on posters, stickers, notebooks, mugs & tees : )