US artists lead effort to restore Nina Simone's childhood home
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New York (AFP) – A group of US artists have spearheaded efforts to preserve musical great and civil rights activist Nina Simone's childhood home as a cultural site, auctioning artworks and organizing a gala on Saturday in New York to raise funds.
Organizers hope the funding drive, also supported by tennis champion Venus Williams, will raise some $2 million to restore the property where the genre-defying musician first started playing piano.
The modest wooden house is perched on a grassy hill in the small town of Tryon in rural North Carolina, in the southeastern United States.
It had fallen into disrepair when, in 2017, four African American artists, Julie Mehretu, Ellen Gallagher, Rashid Johnson and Adam Pendleton, purchased it and launched a crowdfunding campaign to turn the property into a cultural site suitable for visitors.
"The home where Nina Simone was born and spent her early years is of cultural importance," Pendleton told AFP at the Pace Gallery in New York, where the art works being auctioned were exhibited last week.
"And it's important that it remains, as a place that people can both see and visit, because it's a way of keeping Nina and her legacy, her music, alive for generations to come," he added.
"Nina Simone stood for, and was fighting for, an inclusive, diverse America."
- 'On the map' -
Over the past five years, the effort has raised $500,000 for initial conservation and painting work, according to Brent Leggs, the executive director of the African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund, who works with the artists.
But the 660-square-foot (60-square-meter) house still needs work to become a permanent site open for visitors and cultural events. According to Leggs, the house could be open to the public as early as 2024.
To make that happen, the team is auctioning off 11 items, including works donated by British painter Cecily Brown and American artist Sarah Sze.
The auction, administered by Pace and Sotheby's, has been taking place online since May 12 and will run through Monday.
Williams hopes the Saturday gala will help raise the remaining necessary funds.
"Nina Simone's legacy is what has put people like me on the map today," said Williams, the first Black tennis player to become the world's number one.
- Black Lives Matter -
Simone, whose songs were popular during Black Lives Matter protests, had a complex, often difficult relationship with the United States, where she was born in 1933, during the era of racial segregation.
Born Eunice Waymon, she spent the first years of her life in the three-room house in Tryon with her parents and siblings and began playing the piano at age three.
But her dream of becoming a classical concert performer was shattered when she was rejected by Philadelphia's prestigious Curtis Institute of Music, an ordeal she attributed to racism.
In the 1960s, Simone was active in the civil rights movement, at times through rousing speeches, sometimes through song.
Her "Mississippi Goddam," was a response to a 1963 fire in an Alabama church started by members of the Ku Klux Klan. Three days after the assassination of Martin Luther King in 1968, she performed "Why? (The king of love is dead)."
Simone eventually left the United States and lived her last years in the south of France, where she died in 2003.
"Our country is beginning to understand the need to preserve all of our history, and recognize and celebrate the diversity of our country," said Leggs. "This is an exciting time in historic preservation."
© 2023 AFP