American artists are working to renovate Nina Simone’s family home

Organizers hope the fundraiser, also supported by tennis champion Venus Williams, will raise about $2 million to renovate the property where the genre-defying musician started playing the piano.

A modest wooden house stands on a grassy hill in the small town of Tryon in rural North Carolina in the southeastern United States.

It fell 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 transform the property into a cultural venue suitable for visitors.

“The house where Nina Simone was born and spent her early years is culturally significant,” Pendleton told AFP at the Pace Gallery in New York, where artworks were put up for auction last week.

“And it’s important that it stays 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 future generations,” he added.

“Nina Simone stood for and fought for an inclusive, diverse America.”

– ‘On the map’ –

According to Brent Leggs, executive director of the African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund, which works with artists, the effort has raised $500,000 over the past five years for initial conservation and painting work.

But the 660-square-foot (60-square-metre) home still needs work to become a permanent venue open to visitors and cultural events. According to Leggs, the house could open to the public as early as 2024.

To make this happen, the team is putting up for auction 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 running online since May 12 and will run until Monday.

Williams hopes Saturday’s event will help raise the remaining necessary funds.

“Nina Simone’s legacy has put people like me on the map today,” said Williams, the first black tennis player to become world number one.

– Black lives matter –

Simone, whose songs were popular during the Black Lives Matter protests, had a complex, often difficult relationship with the United States, where she was born in 1933 during an era of racial segregation.

Born Eunice Waymon, she spent her early years in a three-room home in Tryon with her parents and siblings, and began playing the piano at the age of three.

But her dream of becoming a classical concert performer was shattered when she was rejected by the prestigious Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, which she attributed to racism.

In the 1960s, Simone was active in the civil rights movement, sometimes through rousing speeches, sometimes through songs.

Her “Mississippi Goddam” was in response to a church fire in Alabama in 1963, 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 spent the last years of her life in the south of France, where she died in 2003.

“Our country is beginning to understand the need to preserve our entire history and recognize and celebrate our country’s diversity,” said Leggs. “It’s an exciting time in heritage conservation.”

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