To be free


Date: October 6, 2020

I have depicted a hopeful, yet melancholy portrait of Nina Simone. In this image, she is caught between being caged and freed from the restrictions on her life and the lives of other women, and people of color throughout American history. These restrictions are interpreted as a birdcage or prison-like bars, which double as the keys on her piano. This creates a dynamic visual which prompts the viewer to question whether she is trapped or breaking free. The choice to use only black and white to depict this imagery is purposeful in establishing a stagnant, but tense feeling for the viewer. However, on the left side of the image, we find a series of birds in different stages of flight. They are painted as basic, light-colored silhouettes which symbolize hope and the beginning stages of freedom. In order to leave room for symbolic interpretation, the birds are not as detailed as Simone’s portrait. They also bring a soft, light, and airy symbolism, which contrasts with the sharper and more realistic black and white imagery.

In my personal exploration of Simone’s life, music, and career, I came across a quote that inspired me: “It is difficult to retain your standards with the pressure of trying to make money, which always has its rules…It’s hard to walk the tightrope of doing what you think is your best and making money at it.” It is because of these words that I used the piano keys to double as prison/cage bars. Simone was sometimes trapped by her career. People only wanted to deal with her, or hear her with regard to her music. She was often ignored, and dismissed when making passionate statements about her beliefs. The piano gave her a platform but also limited her from being completely free to be her whole self. It is this dichotomy/duality that has informed my approach to this painting, and has made her a fascinating and heroic figure to me.