Scheherazade Tillet, Little Girl Blue: A Sojourn to Nina Simone’s Childhood Home
Image: Detail of Salamisha 2018 Scheherazade Tillet
Institute of Jazz Studies
In August 2018 photographer Scheherazade Tillet visited the childhood home of Nina Simone in Tryon, North Carolina. Born in 1933, Simone became an iconic jazz singer, arranger, composer, pianist and social activist. Tillet who is currently working on photography project on black girlhood went to the house with her sister, writer and RU-N professor Salamishah Tillet. The photographs will accompany Salamishah’s forthcoming book, “All the Rage: ‘Mississippi Goddamn’ and The World Nina Simone Made” which in her words is based on “Nina’s most explicitly political song, “Mississippi Goddam,” the civil-rights anthem which Simone composed in 1964 in response to the assassination of the civil-rights leader Medgar Evers in Mississippi and the murder of four African-American girls in a church bombing in Birmingham, Alabama, a year earlier.”
Tillet’s photographs are a visual reimagining of Simone as a child in her home, at play, making music, or in the artists words “laying in bed and gazing out the window – perhaps at the family church down the road.” In Tillet’s photographs we see furniture props placed by the former owner of the house to recreate a kind of historical diorama, but there is something more illusive in her framing that is beyond the curated objects. We are presented with shifting layers, a slightly open door behind a bed, radiant wall colors, the peeling back of the homes wooden structure, piercing light pouring in from windows, unseen elements under the house… between floorboards. In one image the window frame gives the appearance of a crucifix that extends from the top of the church seen in the distance.
Consistent with Tillet’s own practice as an artist-activist, she has literally gone to the roots seeking clues for Simone’s spirit and genius. There is also the backdrop of racism which pervaded Simone’s life in Tryon, and in Salamishah’s words “despite her now larger-than-life presence in Tryon, the town continues to be deeply divided by race.” Scheherazade’s photographs are in conversation with the intentions of four groundbreaking contemporary artists, Adam Pendleton, Rashid Johnson, Ellen Gallagher, and Julie Mehretu who purchased the Simone home in 2016 with the intention of keeping her spirit and impact alive.
As a performer, Nina regularly toured Newark at the height of her Civil Rights career, but she also was a frequent visitor to the home of Amiri and Amina Baraka, even staying with them for a brief spell in 1984. He memorialized that sojourn in the essay “Nina Returns” in which he compassionately reflected that Nina felt that she never fully received the accolades or wealth that her career deserved “at the same time, the Streisands, Shores, Ronstadts, with less talent, have reaped far more benefits. She knows, as does any person really clear about American life, that such injustice is rooted in the racism and class bias of the society’s history and development.” Their friendship lasted until her death in 2003 and continued to shape Newark’s next generation of artist-activists, particularly Mayor Ras Baraka who recalled in a 2014 campaign interview, “She stayed with us. Nina Simone was part of the family and not here to be a star.”
This installation is the inaugural partnership between Shine, the Institute of Jazz Studies (IJS), and Rutgers University Libraries which will invite contemporary artists to reflect and respond artistically to the Jazz archive. IJS came to Rutgers University-Newark in 1967 and is the foremost archive and research facility dedicated soley to jazz in the world. Funding support for the installation projects comes in part from Express Newark.
Images from Little Girl Blue: A Sojourn To Nina Simone's Childhood Home