By: Debra Dylan
“I am from Liberia in West Africa,” says Hawa Ware Johnson. “We didn’t expect our country was going to war, but in 1990 we had a civil war. It was really bad and all kinds of atrocities were going on. I was between 11 and 12 years old when my family fled to the Ivory Coast. We lived there for three years as refugees. My aunt applied for the Refugee Resettlement Program, and we came to Knoxville. There were 18 members in my family. We were the largest group to resettle in Knoxville.
“I was still in shock when we came to Knoxville. Being a refugee is like being homeless. Mama Joyce kind of adopted three of us. She just welcomed us and she didn’t know us from anywhere.
“It was a really loving feeling in her home. When we got to her house it was wonderful. The house smelled nice. Me and my sister had a fluffy bed comforter. There was a shower, and after taking a bath in buckets for three years, the shower was the best. She wondered what we ate, and we eat rice. She cooked brown rice, and we didn’t know what it was. She is still in touch with us and she is like family.”
In 2014, Hawa completed her Masters in Teaching Education with an emphasis in Art Education. Her thesis, “Crossing the Cavalia,” depicts her family’s odyssey from Africa to Knoxville. Hawa says the characters in these mixed media paintings were inspired by Asian shadow puppets.
For the puppets’ clothing she created a batik effect. “I started playing with paper and watercolors. I found it really interesting. I didn’t know the paper could adjust to the puppets. I’m planning on expanding this series, even though the original pieces have sold.
“I’m hoping things will get better in Liberia. Right now things are so-so. We eventually want to return to home. That’s one of the reasons we closed the restaurant [Palava Hut]. We thought we were going home.
“We want to be involved in the rebuilding of that area. I visited Liberia in 2013 and there are so many people. a lot of young people welcoming me back. I’ve been gone so long I felt like a different nationality. I was very excited about the kids. They have issues in school. They were really interested in art. I tried to teach them watercolor. It’s another way of learning. It really inspired them.”
While Hawa’s husband completes his agriculture degree, she says, “I am trying to share the best of my culture, and being here so long, I want to be contributing as best I can. I work on art to show the beautiful memories.”