Arts & CultureArts Features

Georgie Nakima Connects People, Places and Plants

It’s not always about choosing one side of the brain or the other. The two can go hand-in-hand, as can be seen in the work of local muralist Georgie Nakima.

“I like to tell people that art is a science and science is an art,” Georgie Nakima says. The Charlotte-based artist and community organizer has drawn on her science background in creating colorful public art that can be seen throughout Charlotte, from the west side to NoDa, paintings that seamlessly fuse wildlife and the natural world with spiraling geometric shapes.

For Nakima there is scant difference between the organic and the mathematic.

“Things that we think [of as] different worlds are actually parallel and there’s a line between them,” Nakima maintains. That line is math, she explains, a divine code which humans did not invent. “We discovered it. It’s the underlying force of how we exist. It’s an invisible line of how we’re connected.”

Nakima extends that line of connection to encompass community and history with Kindred, her multidisciplinary public art project located in west Charlotte’s Biddleville neighborhood at Mechanics and Farmers Bank, Charlotte’s first minority-owned financial institution.

“[The project] brings artwork outside of art districts and directly into the communities that can truly use it,” Nakima explains.

Georgie Nakima. (Photo by Jonathan Cooper)

Funded by the Knight Foundation through the Celebrate Charlotte Arts Grant, Kindred kicked off on Martin Luther King Jr. Day with a workshop featuring collages by local artist CHD:WCK!, at which he led a free immersive community experience.

At the core of the series is the concept of connecting, Georgie Nakima stresses. Being part of the Charlotte art community for many years, she kept encountering the barriers that divided and isolated creators. Far too frequently, artists worked in silos, off doing their own thing.

“That’s really what started Kindred,” she says. “It is the first step in coming together and seeing our beauty and how dynamic we are.”

The January workshop also showcased an informal lecture by Johnathan Shepard about the evolution of the educational system in Charlotte’s Historic West End. West Charlotte had been home to many black schools and educators, Nakima says, but that changed when the color barrier was crossed.

While integration ushered in resources, it also inadvertently undermined the unifying force behind black communities. Communities that once focused on teaching and nurturing their own began to splinter.

“We were learning about the resources of the West End and its legacy and how it’s changed,” Nakima says about the workshop, “and we were creating art around it.”

Befitting the location and topic covered by the inaugural event, history is an important part of Kindred. The workshop series is designed to pool local creatives under one umbrella, Nakima says, then connect those artists with historic African-American communities to draw a through line from each neighborhood’s past to its future.

The next Kindred event takes place at Johnson C. Smith University’s Arts Factory, a renovated building on West Trade Street less than half a mile from Mechanics and Farmers Bank. It will feature historian Maarifa Kweli’s lecture on the African-American Diaspora and a face mask demonstration guided by artist Micaila Ayo Thomas.

It all happens for free on Feb. 29, or Leap Day, which thrills Nakima’s inner math nerd.

“I thought it’s just a fun day because it’s rarely the 29th [of February],” she says laughing.

Further workshops under the Kindred banner will culminate in a community festival in April that will incorporate visual arts and dance workshops.

That same month, Kindred will present a workshop geared toward a subject dear to Georgie Nakima’s heart: gardening and plant life.

Pursuing a degree in biology from Winston-Salem State University, where she also minored in chemistry, Nakima immediately grasped how biology was entwined with chemistry, and how mathematical constructs were ensconced in the plant world. She’s no stranger to fractals and sacred geometry. Not only does she understand the Fibonacci spiral, a logarithmic pattern found everywhere in nature and derived from a mathematical sequence where each number is the sum of the two numbers that precede it, she professes to love it.

The science of plants and gardening is inextricably entwined with Nakima’s art, and her work has extended beyond conceptual gardens to real ones. Last July, she worked with children from the Rams Fitness Academy summer camp to create two murals at the Simon’s Green Acre community garden at the Enterprise Center in Winston-Salem.

Reinforcing the garden connection are Nakima’s murals, which have appeared across Charlotte under the moniker Garden of Journey. The title is a kind of brand, Nakima explains. Since she didn’t want her professional website to be bannered with just her first and last name, she devised a thought piece, a name that would explain what her work entailed.

“Garden Mural” by Georgie Nakima.

Hence Garden of Journey. For the journey part, Nakima says she had broken out of society’s success-driven rat race and decided that her life was a journey.

“The garden part represents how diverse the ecosystem can be if we nourish it,” she explains. “When you think about it, Garden of Journey is pretty much a short poem.”

Given her affinity for gardens, plants and nature, Nakima is also a proponent of conservation and environmentalism, causes and concerns that appear in her artwork in the guise of wildlife like wolves, tigers and other big cats.

We live in a world in which we’re disconnected from nature and the consequences of our choices, she maintains. For example, we make trips to the grocery store unconcerned with the debilitating effects factory farming has on our land, livestock and water.

“We need to get back to indigenous processes,” Nakima asserts, “falling back in love with our land to nourish ourselves and our communities.”

With that thesis, she dovetails back to the lessons of history, coming full circle like the graceful curve of the Fibonacci spiral. The Historic West End boasts a rich agricultural history, she says. “It was mainly farmland, which is ironic because now it’s a food desert.”

She hopes that one consequence of the Kindred events will be that people will patronize local businesses, including the nearby Rosa Parks Farmers Market, and begin thinking more about what they’re supporting with their money.

Nakima’s own history has been a spiral dance with art ever since she was old enough to pick up a crayon. She started off with realistic paintings and drawings, but her fascination with biology, chemistry and calculus exerted a subconscious pull.

“When you think about the sciences, you’re always learning of the micro-layers that create existence,” she says.

Those layers started appearing in her work almost unbidden, as if she started creating ecosystems not entirely rooted in realism without consciously deciding to do so.

Afrofuturism, the art and literature movement that incorporates elements of black history and culture into science fiction, also contributed to her aesthetic. Nakima says she responds to the movement’s focus on resilience and the power to make positive change. That makes Afrofuturism more rooted in reality, she maintains, because everyone can relate to overcoming challenges.

“You can even say Afrofuturism is in the present because it’s trending,” she says “It’s popping up a lot because people are ready for positive change.”

Collaboration has also exerted an influence on Nakima’s artistic development. In 2018 she teamed with two other black women artists, Sloane Siobhan and Janelle Dunlap, to create Manifest Future, an Afrofuturist mural at the site of the Rosa Parks Farmers Market at 1600 West Trade Street in west Charlotte.

The artists rallied neighborhood residents to come together at weekly painting parties where they could create, connect and foster a sense of community.

Perhaps her most high-profile piece is a mural she created last fall on the McCrorey YMCA basketball court, the result of a partnership with the NBA and Xbox during All-Star Weekend.

Work by Georgie Nakima at the McCrorey YMCA.

Both projects served as forerunners for the Historic West End awareness campaign and open-hearted community building encompassed by Kindred. For her part, Nakima hopes to see more collaboration taking root in Charlotte’s art scene.

“Obviously, we can all do our own things, but I think it’s good to come outside of yourself and connect with other people,” she says.

Nakima sees the communal process as humbling and grounding, a chance for artists to broaden the scope of their focus beyond self and their own creations. With Charlotte’s explosive growth in recent years, she feels that artists should ramp up their collaborative efforts so that the city’s creative culture can grow.

At least, creatives should recognize that collaboration will create more opportunities for artist.

“There’s not a lot of room for us to be competitive and tear each other down,” she insists. “I’d rather use my energy to uplift people.”

Building community, breaking down barriers and inspiring neighbors are all on the docket for the Kindred workshops to come; recognizing Charlotte’s black development corridor as an important part of telling a people’s story, Nakima says, but also asking what that means for the people that are already there.

The flip side of this positivity is the pressure exerted by gentrification and displacement, she maintains, both of which cast a shadow over the Historic West End. That’s why she believes it’s important to include the existing West End community in the art spaces created by Kindred.

Nakima sees the process as creative storytelling, sharing a tale that demands to be heard.

“The purpose is to let people know why this corridor is important,” she says. “The idea is that art can unite a community and usher in empathetic spaces where neighbors can feel okay and be recognized.”

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