Boston-born Renee (Cheatham) Neblett enjoys a profoundly creative career as visual artist, writer, educator and founder of the Kokrobity Institute near Accra in Ghana, West Africa. Her vision for Kokrobity is inspired by Elma Lewis and brings together Africans and Americans through daringly fresh approaches to education, visual arts/design and economic development. With an insightful grasp of overlapping issues regarding environment, sustainability, economics and education, she has reworked traditional approaches to education and development in order to offer African youth more productive and innovative strategies that are sensitive to their transitional experiences between village and urban settings. She empowers dynamic cultural forces to motivate necessary changes without rupturing essential continuities. She is giving them literacy to more accurately read their socio-economic environment.
With this in mind, Neblett is guiding the construction of a design studio within the compound that is Kokrobity. Just as the existing buildings were largely produced with local resources, students and artisan/builders, she and her small international staff will accomplish building a design studio that will stand at the heart of new products. Those offerings will be beautiful, but more importantly, they will be simultaneously conscious of the ‘traditional culture’ but geared strongly toward the future. Considered in the context of their current production of ‘jeans’ rugs and ‘wine bottle’ hanging lamps, the design studio will seek to find the best balance between imaginative conceptual ideas and available materials whether sourced from trash or organic fibers.
Before studying in Germany and relocating to Ghana, Neblett taught at the Elma Lewis School of Fine Arts, where she famously designed the decorations for the cabarets that capped the extravaganza known as Celebrate! In the 1970s, Celebrate! was the National Center’s annual fund raiser that consisted of an exhibition and fashion show at City Hall, a theatrical performance at the Music Hall (now Wang Center) and a cabaret in its own building that lasted all night.
Neblett’s recent visit allowed her to look again at many of her graphic works (woodcuts, drawings) and watercolors that are held by the Museum. It also allowed her and Edmund Barry Gaither to discuss potential future opportunities for collaboration between the Museum and Kokrobity.
Picture: Renee Neblett and Edmund Barry Gaither standing in front of the Portrait of Elma Lewis by Murphy Lewis (no relationship). Miss Lewis played a pivotal role in the lives of both.