Gallerist Meisha Johnson on Building a More Diverse Art Community in Charleston
Portrait of Meisha Johnson and her daughter Sabina at Neema Gallery, 2020. Photo by Lea Austen. Courtesy of Neema Gallery.
For gallerist Meisha Johnson, Charleston, South Carolina, offers a challenging, unique atmosphere for doing business. Throughout the 19th century, the city served as the nation’s slave trade capital; today, those Confederate legacies persist in both slave-built architecture and local attitudes. Johnson, one of the few Black art dealers in town, owns two galleries in the central downtown area: Neema Fine Art Gallery and Gallery Elevate, on Broad and East Bay Streets, respectively. They’re a quick walk from both the Old Exchange—which hosted slave auctions until the Civil War—and from the site of the first African American–owned law firm in the country. In a recent conversation with Artsy Editorial, Johnson explained her attraction to the city by recounting the tale of Robert Smalls, a former slave who commandeered a Confederate ship in Charleston’s harbor and sailed himself to freedom—and a career in politics. “I was drawn by the inspirational stories that were not readily available,” she said.
When Johnson first began visiting Charleston around 20 years ago, she felt invisible when she walked into galleries and other businesses. “No ‘hi, how are you doing?’ And then when I left, no ‘goodbye.’ Often, someone would come in behind me and they’d get greeted and spoken to,” she recalled. In recent years, however, she’s noted that attitudes are slowly changing. As she exhibits work by Black artists from the South and beyond, Johnson aspires to further enhance racial equity and support a diverse community of artists and collectors in Charleston.
Johnson grew up in South Carolina around Anderson and Columbia—a good way northwest of Charleston. Her passion for art developed early and became a constant throughout her parents’ divorce and various moves. “I was always known as the new kid who was creative and won the art contests, drew the logos for school spirit pins and posters and banners for spirit week,” she said. Yet when she matriculated to the University of South Carolina, she enrolled in the psychology and elementary education program.
After she graduated from college, Johnson moved to Atlanta. There, she taught kindergarteners with special needs and established Threshing Floor Academy, an extracurricular arts program for children, merging her creative passions with her scholastic experience. “My mission was to help families and children to pursue their gifts through art,” said Johnson. “I wanted to help them discover who they are and what they want to be.”
Though Johnson moved around the country as an adult, as she began to establish a family of her own, she continued to visit Charleston. The city’s beauty and history attracted her, and she felt a spiritual connection that only grew as she learned more about the place. Through her travels, Johnson befriended Jeannette Cooper (formerly Jeannette Nicholson), who owned the Ellis-Nicholson Gallery on Broad Street—“the Rodeo drive of Charleston,” as Johnson described it—in a building once used to print Confederate money. In 2018, Cooper called Johnson to tell her she was closing her gallery. Johnson responded that she’d love the opportunity to open her own gallery there; with that, Neema was born.
Cecil Williams, Cecil Williams in Edisto, SC, 1956. Courtesy of Neema Gallery.
Over the past two years, Johnson has exhibited paintings, drawings, photography, jewelry, and functional objects in the gallery. “Every artist I represent is a phenomenal individual,” said Johnson. “They create works of art that challenge the status quo, that work to ultimately uproot systemic racism in America and in the world.”
At Neema, Johnson sells photography by Cecil Williams, a lauded photographer now in his eighties. As a teenager, Williams captured Thurgood Marshall stepping off a train in Charleston, preparing for a court case (Briggs v. Elliott) about school segregation. Throughout his career, Williams continued to document protests and everyday life in his Southern Black community. In 2019, Williams opened his own museum in Orangeburg, a city northwest of Charleston, to showcase his work. “Nobody has captured the civil rights movement in South Carolina like Cecil Williams,” said Johnson.
The gallerist also sells work by Otto Neals, a Harlem Renaissance painter and sculptor from South Carolina. His bright, lush, and blocky depictions of Black figures celebrate his heritage with an exuberant sense of joy. Tyrone Geter is another superstar of the gallery. The artist and illustrator, who’s in his seventies, has made collages, drawings, and paintings featuring Black men and women in elaborate compositions—with faces that merge with enormous, colorful hats, for example, or with hair that branches and webs with significant character.
Last December, Johnson brought Geter’s work to Red Dot Miami, a satellite fair that takes place during Art Basel in Miami Beach. That first major art fair experience was a revelation for Johnson. Visitors adored her presentation of Geter’s work, and she was inspired by the larger art-selling scene in Miami. Witnessing galleries sell art for hundreds of thousands of dollars in the main fair shifted her thinking. “I came back changed,” she said. “I came back with the realization that there’s another level to artist representation. I want my artists to achieve that level.”
Tyrone Geter, Brave New World, 2020. Courtesy of Neema Gallery.
While Johnson remains committed to showing top, Southern, African American artists (both living and deceased) at Neema, she also embarked this year on an audience-expanding project: In March, she opened Gallery Elevate, which is devoted to African American artists selling at a price point more welcoming to beginning collectors. Through Elevate, Johnson represents jewelers such as Michelle Beecher, as well as a number of painters.
Johnson’s goals extend beyond introducing Black artists to Charleston’s collecting community; she’s eager to address the larger inequities in her city’s art scene. Gentrification is hitting Charleston hard, and downtown business owners are still predominantly white. According to Johnson, Charleston gallerists often sell paintings of Black figures by white artists who have done nothing to support the Black communities they depict. Through her own platform, Johnson hopes to bring such issues into the open, in a city that’s long suppressed its prejudiced past. One day, Johnson hopes, it won’t be surprising to find a Black gallerist, and work by Black artists, on Broad Street.