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The Spirit Called: Danny Simmons in Jackson, Mississippi
“I Dreamed My People Were Calling but I Couldn’t Find My Way Home” at Jackson State University’s Gallery1 is a brief survey of paintings and works on paper by Danny Simmons, Jr. And by brief survey I mean only 10 of his works were chosen from his extensive repertoire that has been evolving for over 20 years.
Simmons’s studio is nestled on the top floor of his three-story Brooklyn home, which also houses his museum-worthy collection of African art and artifacts. His abstract painting style is deeply inspired by his collection, so it was only natural that the two be exhibited side by side, ensuring that the poetic dialogue between them continues.
The exhibition’s title is borrowed from Simmons’s book of poetry published in 2007. As an artist and co-creator, along with his brother Russell Simmons, of Def Poetry Jam, Danny beautifully intermingles his two creative passions on the canvas. Simmons’s work embraces an atavistic African spiritual consciousness from which he creates generous wisps of ghostlike brush strokes and hieroglyphic patterns. Embodying the Surrealist qualities of Joan Miró and Wifredo Lam, Simmons also captures the edgy New York vibe of Jean-Michel Basquiat. Beyond Heaven’s Gate (2008) pulls from all these artists with its multilayered field of color bursting from “beyond.” His whimsical yet strong pattern of color stretches across the canvas, reaching toward the outer edges.
Simmons’s art moves harmoniously between poetry and painting, and among the past, present, and future. “I Dreamed My People Were Calling…” includes a group of his most recent work incorporating pieces of fabric and African textiles. How Many in the Passing and Through the Ages (both 2014) allude to the appropriation of African craftsmanship into mainstream society. He has also delved into the realm of digital painting; Whoosh (2013) shows his understanding of layers, which indeed reflects Simmons’s many facets.
His poem, “The Jigaboo Waltz,” reveals his own ambiguity in the opening stanza:
I was then/as now
mostly to myself
or a poet
the means/needing to
Fit my ending as it
laid before me
up my back
haunting I’m called
“I Dreamed My People Were Calling…” was chosen for Gallery1 to be a “homecoming” of sorts—a reference to the West African culture that is rooted in Southern history. It is Simmons’s first show in Mississippi, and it has certainly conjured an ample dose of artistic magic.
“I Dreamed My People Were Calling but I Couldn’t Find My Way Home” can be seen at Jackson State University’s Gallery1 in Jackson, Mississippi, through May 3, 2014.
Kimberly D. Jacobs is a curator, art critic, and gallery director from Jackson, Mississippi. She’s currently living in St. Louis during her tenure as the Romare Bearden Fellow at the Saint Louis Art Museum.