Ebony Thompson lived in Sierra Leone during the civil war that ravaged the African nation from 1991 to 2002 and killed over 50,000 people. Thompson, now an artist living Elmont, moved to the United States in 2016 to seek a better life.
Once Thompson moved to the U.S., he spent years exploring the communities of New York and New Jersey, specifically Princeton, where his father worked as a teacher, as well as Jersey City. Thompson’s experience of the Sierra Leone Civil War along with his experience as a Black man in the United States shaped his artwork, which is on social justice and African culture.
“The traumatic experiences in my life and my movement around New Jersey and New York experiencing different cultures,” he said, “had a major impact on my paintings.”
When Thompson first arrived in the U.S., he struggled to understand Black culture and the history of Black people in America. “I really didn’t know about the Black American experience,” Thompson said, explaining that he did not grasp the issues affecting Black people in this country despite his African heritage. “I did not understand the systemic issues,” Thompson said.
Listening to hip-hop, the musical genre invented and popularized by Black Americans, he said, greatly helped him understand issues affecting Black communities. Thompson emphasized the role played by the music of Notorious B.I.G. and Tupac Shakur, two late rappers who came to prominence during the 1990s. “Biggie and Tupac helped guide me and helped me survive and understand culture and the streets,” he said.
Thompson also said that negative experiences with law enforcement during his travels across New York and New Jersey influenced his perspective, and later, his art. “Because of who I was or what my makeup is, I was searched randomly,” Thompson said, adding that these experiences informed him about the experience of Black people in the U.S. He added, however, that he did not have the vocabulary or social platform when he first arrived in New York and New Jersey to express how these experiences shaped his views on issues of social justice.
Today, custom items sold by Thompson online often bear messages about the importance of social justice efforts, such as improving education in the Black community. “My husband is diverse in his artwork,” said Katrina Thompson, Ebony’s wife. “He expresses his African roots, his thinking about life, African emperors and kings… and he can go back to social justice issues,” she said, exploring the wide range of topics Ebony focuses on in his artwork.
“There are no set rules to his paintings,” Katrina said. She added that Ebony is very passionate about his work. She recalled that when Ebony was painting the Notorious B.I.G., the late rapper also known as “Biggie Smalls,” he listened to and became familiar with his discography.
This wide-ranging passion is fueled by a desire to seek truth, Thompson said. Art serves as a personal outlet and vehicle for self-exploration for the Elmont artist. “I use art as a means or conduit to express myself,” he said. Thompson’s goal today is to fuse African scenery and culture with messages about the Black experience in America. “To bring that to the forefront and blend this with socio-economic issues… that’s how these come together,” Thompson said.
Thompson began creating artwork on and off beginning over 20 years ago, when he worked as a manager at Applebee’s as well as TGI Friday’s. When he lost his job in March 2020 as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, Thompson turned to art as a means of relaxation as well as to generate income to pay his mortgage and other bills.
He bought a sewing machine, updated his websites and began to produce art for himself and for the public. Slowly but surely, he began to see success. “I realized, ‘Hey, it’s not that bad,’” Thompson recalled, and decided to keep creating artwork. “I just continued with it,” he said.
Thompson, whose paintings have been on display before at Elmont Memorial Library, has begun to use his house and his garage as a gallery to display his artwork. The show on Sept. 18, which was held in his home, was a success, he said, but not for commercial reasons. “It’s not so much about people buying the art, but seeing art and seeing who I am,” Thompson said.
To him, artwork is a means to explore truth. “I’m genuine, I’m always in pursuit of truth,” Thompson said. “Truth, no matter how you suppress it, will always rise to the top.”
He said his mission to uncover the truth about his ancestry as well as about issues facing Black Americans. “Once I find out what that truth is, I want to convey that through the art,” Thompson said.