“It’s just a feeling—it’s just a feeling. It’s like how do you tell somebody what it’s like to be in love? … You cannot do it do save your live. You can describe things, but you can’t tell it, but you know it when it happens. That’s what I mean by freedom.”
So intones Nina Simone in an archival interview when asked to explain her 1967 rendition of the song “I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free.” Simone’s words rang throughout the lobby of Chicago’s Smart Museum of Art last night as part of a program titled “Art After Dark: Art and Protest” to launch the city’s Expo Art Week, timed to the Expo Chicago art fair that opens to VIPs on Thursday.
“Art and Protest” offered a musical program of eight Simone songs, along with a discussion of her music and that of Bob Thompson, who is currently the subject of a traveling retrospective at the Smart on view through May 15. The evening was organized by the Smart’s lead museum educator, Katherine Davis, who is also a renowned Blues musician. She described the evening’s program “as a road map from the ’60s to today.”
For decades, Simone has served as a touchstone for generations of artists, including four—Rashid Johnson, Julie Mehretu, Adam Pendleton and Ellen Gallagher—who banded together to save Simone’s childhood home in 2017. That quartet is currently looking to transform the house in North Carolina into a creative destination.
There’s a special connection between Simone and Thompson, who were close friends and tireless artist-activists during the civil rights era. They used their art to imagine new possibilities for the freedom of Black people—and by extension other marginalized groups—in this country. Thompson even titled a 1965 canvas Homage to Nina Simone, which depicts a colorful bacchanal where a blue female figure, framed by a passage of orange zigzag, sits at the center holding a brown guitar. Around her are various other figures relaxing and vibing to her strumming. Pastel colors swirl in the sky above, while hues of green meld into each other at the bottom.
Thompson’s retrospective, which was organized by the Colby College Museum of Art in Maine and will then travel to Atlanta and Los Angeles, charts the artist’s short but prolific career. Over the course of eight years, he created some 1,000 works before his untimely death at 28 in 1966. Thompson’s stunning images are defined by their high-impact visuals—their shocking and electric colors that he purposefully rendered flat. Artist Robert Colescott once said of Thompson’s art, “When you think you’ve got it—‘sure, it’s about Black and White’—you find out it’s really about red and purple.”
The exhibition’s title takes its name from a modestly sized 1960 oil-on-board work in which a Black figure stands at the composition’s center; in the upper left corner is a red house. As with many of his works, the expressionistic strokes border on abstraction. The piece is the only work Thompson ever titled in the first person and, according to the wall text, “hints at his larger ambitions. Working in the midst of the Civil Rights and Black Power movements, Thompson confronted centuries of dispossession head on in his art and synthesized a new visual language from European artistic traditions.”
In her opening remarks, Davis asked the audience to think deeply about Thompson’s claiming of a space all his own: “If you read over those doors, it says, ‘This House Is Mine.’ What does he mean by that? What would you mean by that? If your label the artwork you created from live experiences, what would you say by saying ‘This house is mine.’”
As with many artists before him, Thompson looked to the giants of art history as points of departure, using pieces by Piero della Francesca, Tintoretto, Titian, Poussin, Goya, Gauguin, and Munch as inspirations. Greco-Roman myths and bacchanal and pastoral scenes also served as important sources for Thompson. He put his own spin on these historical images, however, and generated a universe was that was entirely Thompson’s.
A particularly poignant work, The Execution (1961), is loosely based on Fra Angelico’s Beheading of Saint Cosmas and Saint Damian (1438–40). Whereas Fra Angelico has Saint Cosmas waiting to be beheaded at the center of the composition, standing over his brother’s decapitated head and body, Thompson has rendered Saint Cosmas as a Black man who hangs from a tree as an executioner beats him. The work is a clear invocation of the history of lynching of Black people in the U.S. We cannot forget these brutal histories when imagining new futures, Thompson seems to say.
Prior to the evening’s program beginning, the band played instrumental music that could be heard throughout the galleries. Thompson’s music pulsed in response. On the walls, Thompson’s rich colors appeared to thrum alongside these sounds. In the jovial painting Triumph of Bacchus (1964), for example, a group of processing figures radiate and dance.
All in all, Thompson’s work was a way to grapple with how art history—and his spiritual artistic teachers—had long excluded Black people from the canon. In his hands, the possibilities of life with freedom achieved are endless.
As Rashid Johnson writes in the show’s catalogue, “Rarely have I come across the work of a Black artist in which the characters are cast so freely in outdoor settings. Thompson’s protagonists flow unencumbered through colorful landscapes, redefining topographies and authoring their own fates.”
The night’s program began as four vocalists dressed in purple—Davis, Mz. Reese, Devyn Longstree, and Kayla Henderson—took to the stage to sing powerful renditions of classics like “Feelin’ Good,” “I Put a Spell on You,” and “Mississippi Goddam,” ending with all four women joining to croon “Young, Gifted and Black.”
As Dorian H. Nash, the Smart Museum’s interim manager of public programs, said just before the final song, “By invoking [Nina’s] spirit here in this place, we wanted to embody what it was to think about how art can influence change—real change.”