Sitting in a sunlit room of her mother’s home near Raleigh, North Carolina, 24-year-old scholar, writer and curator Nzinga Simmons recalls her mother’s mantra, “If you have the opportunity to learn more about yourself and your people, take advantage of it.” When your mother speaks, take heed.
In 2018, with a degree in art history and minor in African studies from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Simmons moved to Atlanta (which she’d never visited). She’d been chosen for the inaugural two-year Tina Dunkley Fellowship in American Art.
Simmons and co-fellow TK Smith, an ArtsATL contributor, were immersed in curatorial practices at Clark Atlanta University Art Museum, the Zuckerman Museum of Art at Kennesaw State University and the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia.
The Simmons-curated exhibition Unbound at the Zuckerman shows an evolution of abstract works from Romare Bearden (1911–1988), Joe Overstreet (1933–2019), 86-year-old Sam Gilliam and the more contemporary Anthony Akinbola, Krista Clark of Atlanta, Eric N. Mack and Tariku Shiferaw. Paintings, sculptures and installations “hang, stretch, tether and dangle off the walls.”
Although Covid-19 has the Zuckerman closed temporarily, there’s a 360-degree virtual tour of Unbound and the Smith-curated exhibition Looming Chaos, featuring the work of Zipporah Camille Thompson, through July 26.
Simmons takes sheltering-in-place in stride and spoke to ArtsATL by videoconference.
ArtsATL: What’s life been like as a Tina Dunkley inaugural fellow?
Simmons: Incredible. I came to Atlanta because I trusted that I would be mentored by a black woman, Dr. Maurita Poole, director and curator of Clark Atlanta University Art Museum, who wanted to open up space for me and for the next generations. Working here and four months in Philadelphia, I experienced the mechanics, the nitty-gritty of what really goes down in museums that I probably wouldn’t have been privy to. We are connected with people who take mentorship really seriously. Real work. Real projects. I’ve gained confidence that I can do this. I can look at and talk about art with a deeper understanding.
ArtsATL: What does Unbound signify?
Simmons: This abstractive visual language speaks to realities of black people through color, form and gesture without actually painting black people. This pushes the idea of what black art is, of what abstraction is and [asks] how does it all contribute to this history of abstraction that often black artists are erased from? I look at Unbound as one, materially experimenting with form; two, conceptually, nonjudgmental abstractions, not buying into abstract art as “pure”; and three, aesthetically, pushing against boundaries of a black aesthetic that says you have to be figurative to talk about these issues, because you don’t.
ArtsATL: Why explore Unbound with multigenerational artists?
Simmons: I wondered about progressive black artists from mid-century to this contemporary moment. How could I make a show that’s incredibly black and deals with how political and social realities connect to black life but not fall into these tropes of forcing it to be figurative or into this preconceived black aesthetic? I realized these questions aren’t new. In terms of understanding black art, abstraction has the power to have a conversation in the gallery, like between contemporary artist Krista Clark with Joe Overstreet or Romare Bearden.
ArtsATL: What experiences shaped your love of art?
Nzinga Simmons: I was born in the Bronx. My mom had African sculptures and prints around the house. We didn’t have the capital for fine art. It was more like street-art framed prints. I spent a lot of time at the Studio Museum and the Schomburg with my uncles who lived in Harlem. My understanding of art has always been steeped in blackness.
ArtsATL: Why pursue art history?
Simmons: At first, I was a studio art major in painting. There I was, remembering the black art that was my visual landscape while taking classes at a predominantly white institution where my identity wasn’t necessarily present in that space. I saw the history of the brick-lined campus laid by slaves along with a Confederate monument. I started thinking, “Who constructed these canons and who had been the gatekeepers of which African American artists we learn about?” Unless there’s a diversity of voices in the field, you won’t get the clearest of pictures.
ArtsATL: What’s your take on Atlanta’s art scene?
Simmons: From a transplant’s perspective only, Atlanta’s very welcoming but lacks a lot of criticism. In terms of black art, often a show is automatically good because we want to uplift each other (which is amazing), but I also think there could be a bit more critique. Not just here, black art in general. We need to care for this art and how we’re theorizing. I feel it’s my job and scholars of my generation to go back and look deeply at these works.
ArtsATL: What’s next for you, post-pandemic, of course?
Simmons: Honestly, I’m just hoping that museums open back up soon. I’ve really missed art without a screen. Art was the way for me to be in the present. Since jobs have been dissolving, I’ll be studying art history and visual culture in grad school at Duke University.
ArtsATL: Do you have a favorite work of art?
Simmons: [She fetches an African hand-carved wood sculpture.] I was in eighth grade. My mom found out about Maya Angelou’s estate sale. We bought this piece from Angelou’s patio. God forbid when my mom passes away, but this thing’s coming with me!
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