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Life & Work with Meetra Johansen

Today we’d like to introduce you to Meetra Johansen.

Hi Meetra, thanks for sharing your story with us. To start, maybe you can tell our readers some of your backstory.

I believe in the deep, transformative power of art and I started Huma House as a way to greatly connect with that.


I started working at Gagosian Gallery in New York and then with Philip Martin Gallery in Los Angeles, but just before the pandemic I left my job in the gallery world to change gears entirely and signed up to volunteer at San Quentin Prison in California. I followed closely as COVID-19 swept through the prisons and many men and women inside were left without any protection or medical care. There were so many headlines and statistics that got lost in the chaos of the pandemic. I wanted to find a different way to tell the stories of the people inside through art, through something visual that could cut through the noise and connect to the public. I started corresponding with artists inside San Quentin and all over California, as well as artists who were formerly incarcerated to understand their stories and see their artwork. I talked with the volunteer art teachers, family members of those incarcerated, and non profits in the space to more deeply understand the limitations of creating art inside and after returning. After 6 months, I curated the first exhibition of Huma House which sought to report on the conditions of COVID-19 for those inside, and was meant to serve as a bridge to connect the public with individuals who are so often rendered invisible.

Can you talk to us a bit about the challenges and lessons you’ve learned along the way. Looking back would you say it’s been easy or smooth in retrospect?
Beginning a gallery initiative during the pandemic itself is tangled with obstacles, but more than that was sourcing the artwork from those in prison and putting on the first show. The logistics of any art show can be complicated, but communicating with artists who were locked down in their prison cells for 23 hours a day because of the pandemic and coordinating logistics of artworks locked in art rooms proved to be nearly, but not quite, impossible. So many advocates, friends, and family members of those impacted by incarceration lit a path for me along the way, and were incredibly generous in their efforts to help me put on my first shows.

Can you tell our readers more about what you do and what you think sets you apart from others?

Huma House is an initiative that harnesses the power of art for collective and social good. Operating at its highest level, art is a transcending force that can catalyze great change. I have seen this power in action and I sought to use it to make visible the lives of men and women who were incarcerated. We create partnerships with returning artists letting them know that their art is viable, and create a platform for it to be seen.

There is a shift that is happening in the landscape of the contemporary art world and a new vision is emerging. Spaces like the Crenshaw Dairy Mart, Theaster Gates’ Rebuild Foundation and the People’s Pottery Project are all pioneers – paving the way for art to be used as a powerful engine of activism, community building, and our reconnection to each other during a time of great strife. I am humbled by what they are creating and step into the path they are carving with great optimism for how art can shape a positive future.

Where we are in life is often partly because of others. Who/what else deserves credit for how your story turned out?

Throughout my journey, I’ve been fortunate enough to receive support from creatives such as Tobias Tubbs, Christian Branscombe, Carol Newborg, Peter Merts, and nonprofits such as The Bail Project. These are advocates, mentors, and sponsors who have brought me into their world of justice reform. They were integral in putting on my first show and their encouragement helped me move forward with Huma House.

Contact Info:

Photo by Peter Merts

Image Credits:
Photographer: Fanny Chu @fannychuphotography Photo assistant: Connor Feyre @filmbycpf Photographer: Kent Nishimura @kentnish

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