Guest blogger Margie Kaye chats with Meisha Johnson, owner of Neema Fine Art Gallery in Charleston, South Carolina, who exclusively showcases works that not only speak to her culture and upbringing, but also, her heart.
Meisha Johnson and her daughter Sabina photo: Ruta Smith
People often marvel at the eclectic collections of art pieces displayed throughout my home - a personal treasure trove I have acquired since childhood, arranged in colorful vignettes like spring flowers peeking out from unexpected places, greeting the sun. My grandmother Bubbie Cecele's home was a showplace; granted, you weren’t allowed to sit on the furniture, but you could wander spellbound from room-to-room, admiring the beautiful paintings, vases, urns and sculptures that filled the space from floor to ceiling. While it was a bit "over the top" and sophisticated for my tastes as a young child, I gained an appreciation and eye for art. I was always attracted to a particular Limoges box in her bedroom, which was painted with cheerful flowers framing its shiny black lid. I would caress the cool porcelain petals with my tiny fingers, dreaming of owning that box one day and placing it by my bedside. Five decades later, Bubbie’s special box joins my beloved collections of art glass, snuff boxes, butterfly-wing etchings, enamel flowers, and deco figurines.
While my own menagerie - a lifetime in the making - is for my and my family and friends' eyes only (which is pleasure enough), for Meisha Johnson, owner of Neema Gallery, the pleasure comes from sharing art with the world. Now entering its second year in business, Neema is Charleston’s only art gallery that exclusively features a highly curated grouping of original artworks and jewelry created by award-winning and emerging Southern African-American artists. The name of the gallery, Neema, means “favor, grace, and prosperity” in Swahili, and those adjectives are personified by the works that line the gallery's walls, and also, in the reception that those who visit it - either deliberately or by "happy accident" while strolling down Charleston’s Gallery Row - are delighted to receive.
MK: So Meisha, are you an artist yourself?
MJ: Yes, I am an artist who previously worked in acrylic on canvas, but I have not painted in years. Instead, my focus shifted to art education and program development roughly 12 years ago. I plan to return to painting soon and keep a journal of ideas next to my bed.
MK: How would you describe the array of works Neema Gallery features?
MJ: We feature "phenomenal works of art by phenomenal Southern African-American artists" - our slogan. We strive to showcase and curate exhibits showing the diversity that is present within African-American artistry. We represent painters and draftspeople who create figurative and stunning abstract drawings and paintings as well as fiber artists, sculptors, printmakers, photographers and collage artists. Many of the artists we represent have been creating their entire lives and have dedicated their lives and artistry to working to dismantle systemic racism in America.
MK: What is the most satisfying aspect of owning your gallery?
MJ: I have the honor of witnessing individuals become drawn to a specific work of art that speaks to who they are, what they have experienced or are experiencing, or what they aspire to become. Maybe they are from the same town or state as the artist, attended the same school, overcame a similar challenge, are at the same crossroads in life as the artist or see themselves or a loved one in a figure in a particular work of art...I could go on and on. This is by far the most rewarding part of being a gallerist and curator. Essentially, I get to witness a work of art find the collector it was created for.
MK: What wisdom do you share with your daughter Sabina about the importance of African-American art in your life and hers?
MJ: Although we have yet to have a direct conversation about the impact and significance of black art per se, she hears me speak on it almost daily with others. She is surrounded by spectacular works of art by black artists on a daily basis and I have no doubt that the art, along with her interactions with the artists, has served to further affirm who she is as a brilliant, dark-skinned African-American girl with gifts and talents galore.
MK: And how does she respond to the art she sees?
MJ: It's funny... she is with me in the gallery often and at age 6, I have witnessed her leading collectors through the gallery, stopping at each work of art to share the name of the artist along with her description of the work. This always tickles me and the guests. I love hearing her interpretation of the art we feature. Often times, her immediate response is one of surprise and excitement at the sight of a new painting that arrives at the gallery that features a child, her favorite color, a familiar figure, object, or location. I remember her insisting that a new painting, which featured a black silhouette of a man and young girl holding hands, was a painting of her and her father! And then there was the time a collector asked her what was her favorite painting in an exhibit of figurative works by an artist, to which she responded: "I like that one the best because she has ponytails, and I love ponytails."
MK: You must be incredibly proud. Tell us more about her!
MJ: Sabina is incredibly observant, attentive, and inquisitive. She is half Ghanaian and half African-American and I am proud to say she is in love with her bold and kinky afro and "chocolate" (as she likes to call it) brown skin in spite of her living in a world that does not necessarily send her positive messages about herself. As her mother, I work hard to nurture her gifts and talents while doing my best to shield her from the false messages and limitations placed on her by society at large ,while exposing her to environments and providing her with experiences that work to further affirm who she is, and that accurately speak to what she can achieve while on this planet.
MK: Is there a particular piece of art that is a favorite of yours and resonates with you personally, especially in light of the Black Lives Matter Movement?
We have so many incredible works of art available that speak to this pivotal time we have entered into as a country and planet. That being said, it is challenging to choose a favorite. I would, however, like to highlight the work of legendary sculptor, painter and printmaker, Otto Neals, and its significance to this moment in time.
MK: What personal insight can you offer us about the artist?
MJ: I recently returned to Charleston after making a quick trip to deliver a piece of art by Tyrone Geter (another phenomenal artist I have the honor of representing) to a major auction house in Manhattan. While in NY, my daughter and I had the absolute pleasure of visiting with Otto and his family at their home of 40 plus years in Brooklyn. At age 88, Otto continues to create works of art that speak to the humanity and dignity of African-American people and of our connection to Africa. As I sat and conversed with him in his home studio - surrounded by his work and later at his kitchen table over a meal prepared by his lovely wife - it became evident to me that in his 76 years of creating art, Otto had not once produced a work of art that featured an African- American in a downtrodden manner; instead, his work depicts everyday black people who - in spite of the challenges they face in America as a result of racism - move forward in grace and dignity, with their backs straight and their heads held high, realizing their contributions to the world and with a profound understanding of their heritage and that they matter.
MK: What are your hopes and plans for the future of Neema Gallery?
MJ: My goal is not just to be the only African-American-owned gallery in town, but also, to help increase diversity," says Johnson. "And it’s my hope that some of these artists, once they do well, might even open galleries of their own!"
These and other works are available through Neema Gallery's online gallery via links above. For additional information or inquiries, visit: neemagallery.com
Margie Kaye is a third generation Floridian, lifestyle writer, blogger, humorist, artist, proud mother, and grateful wife. A heart transplant recipient, she finds joy and gratitude for every day that the beat goes on!