Meisha Johnson is the owner of new Broad Street gallery, Neema Fine Art Gallery, one of the few African-American owned galleries in town, and one that exclusively displays African-American artists in downtown Charleston. “African-American history is so important to Charleston; Charleston would not be Charleston without it,” says Johnson.
Neema Gallery, a beautiful, sun-lit space on Broad Street, is housed in a building that once printed Confederate money. There are unconfirmed rumors that the basement of the building, which sits at 3 Broad, was part of the underground railroad. And right next door, in the space between the gallery and 1 Broad St., are ironworks from Philip Simmons, a 20th century African-American artist Johnson has long admired. The history of the building is not lost on Johnson.
“It’s really one of the things I love about this city,” says Johnson. “When I look at these buildings I know who made them and I’m inspired by it.”
Johnson and her family — including her chatty four-year-old daughter who interjects bits of wisdom throughout our interview — moved to Charleston so that Johnson could take over this space, formerly occupied by the Ellis-Nicholson Gallery. “I am close friends with the previous gallery owner; when she said she was closing I saw the opportunity and took it,” says Johnson.
An artist herself, Johnson has run a gallery in downtown Atlanta, taught special needs children, and started her own children’s art and music business. She’ll be bringing that experience into Neema Gallery starting this February, where she’ll teach private and small group art classes for kids. Neema Gallery will also offer supper clubs and opening receptions for new artists.
In just under two months, Johnson notes that the response to Neema has been “incredible.” “Even for an art gallery, most galleries aren’t selling work every day. But I am,” she says. Neema Gallery currently features 12 artists, including three new ones Johnson is introducing at the end of January, and four jewelers. The work on the wall now — glossy, large-scale pieces by Alicia Barnes John and dreamy, abstract expressionist pieces by Ty Davis — lean toward the abstract, but Johnson says she’ll highlight all kinds of art. The Neema Gallery serves not only as a diverse gallery, but as an open space for artists and the public to interact.
Johnson speaks fondly of the gallery’s first successful event, a sip-and-see with artist and jeweler Charles Pinckney. “Folks who came out knew his work and stayed for 25 minutes to an hour,” says Johnson, still clearly a bit in awe of the response. “All of his jewelry has stories, inspired by memories from his childhood. He would go on and on. There was some back and forth and it was absolutely beautiful.”
Before opening, Johnson actively sought out her Neema Gallery artists, including April Harrison whose work will be displayed in March, starting with an opening reception on Fri. March 1. Harrison, an artist based in Greenville, says that she was very excited to be contacted by Johnson, who had found her work online. “I’m presently not in a gallery so to be in one in my home state is ideal,” says Harrison. Harrison has illustrated children’s books, so in addition to her time at the gallery, she will visit local schools for a book reading and interactive art activity.
Harrison’s multimedia works speak to the diversity of art on display at Neema. A self-taught artist, Harrison works with acrylics, powders, watercolors, pencils, and collage. “The message that I’ve been given is a message about love and support and family bonding,” says Harrison of the inspiration behind her pieces. “This age, we’re into electronics and we become de-sensitized to humanness, to hugs, to going up and talking to someone. I’m gonna give you love — because that’s what we need.”
Humanness. What Harrison seeks to convey in her work, Johnson hopes to bring into the gallery. The Neema Gallery is a space where Johnson wants people to feel welcome; after two minutes, I was ready to stay there all day. Johnson is eager, hopeful, and generous — she does not want Neema Gallery to stand alone.
“My goal, and I want to make this clear — I don’t want to be the only African-American owned gallery in town,” says Johnson. “My goal is to help increase diversity. And it’s my goal that even maybe some of these artists, once they do well, they may open a gallery.” Currently Johnson represents only artists who lived in or have connections to South Carolina (although some of the jewelers are from further afield). Johnson herself grew up in and around Columbia and Anderson. Charleston, though, had its own way of drawing her in.
“My sister attended CofC and I started visiting her,” says Johnson. “It just does something to my soul, everytime I visited I had a weight lifted.” Johnson could feel a connection to this city despite the reactions she would get when she visited in years past. “Ten years ago when I visited here and walked gallery to gallery, with me being African American, they assumed I wasn’t going to buy anything. They wouldn’t give you the time of day,” she says. “But I love this city. It’s changing, there are new people coming to Charleston. It feels different. This year, it’s an exciting time.”
It seems fitting, then, that the word Neema means “favor, grace, and prosperity” in Swahili. As Johnson showed me around the gallery, we peeked into a back room — the classroom — one marked by high ceilings and built-in shelves. Well-worn, but strikingly beautiful, I remarked that the room was lovely. Johnson’s daughter looked up from her table, where she was painting, and proudly told us that we had walked into her art class.
“These are original to the bank,” says Johnson of the ceilings, the shelves. The bank that printed Confederate money. “And here we are.”
Neema Gallery is located at 3 Broad St. in Downtown Charleston and is open Tues.–Sat. 10:30 a.m.–6:30 p.m., Sundays and Mondays by appointment.