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Royal Street gallery an oasis with a cause for French Quarter Fest

The 32nd annual French Quarter Festival will bring three-quarters of a million visitors to the Vieux Carre this weekend. So, if you’re looking for a refuge from the sun and crowds, try ducking into Msaniart Gallery on Royal Street for a cool glass of herb-flavored lemon or limeaid. The refreshing concoctions are being made by members of the Backgard Gardeners Network from the Lower 9th Ward.

Gallery owner M.Sani, who wields the paintbrush behind all the colorful works on the walls, is donating a portion of all his sales this weekend to this community organization. Events like Garden-Aid are a way of paying things forward for this self-taught artist from Cameroon, who found a new home in Louisiana when he arrived here in 1999 as a guest artist for the Festival International in Lafayette.

"First I stayed in Lafayette and the guy hosting me, he say if you come to New Orleans, your style will be great," M.Sani says. "Because I was doing a silhouette kind of painting, also jazzy, and I was doing music before I came here. That’s how I ended up coming here to New Orleans."

M.Sani grew up in Cameroon designing floral and bird motifs that his mother made into linens and pillows. Tapped as the school artist, he developed a style that earned him recognition in his home country. He was invited to Louisiana by a former Peace Corps volunteer who knew his work. Once here, Msani says that he discovered many cultural similarities between Cameroon and the Crescent City.

"The first time I put my feet here in New Orleans, I think I would call it home. I mean, there is a lot of similarity. The spicy food, the dance is similar. And we just happen to have a street that is famous in my country. It's not Bourbon, but Baladie. OK, B B, Bourbon and Baladie. We celebrate a certain way. We have drums. It's like bons temps roulez."

M.Sani opened his first gallery in 2005 – not a propitious year for a start-up business in New Orleans.

"I was so happy," he recalls. "Time to go, I’m ready and everything is fine. Then the Hurricane Katrina came. The first people to come back here after the hurricane were thinking about building first, then decorating. So I try, but it wasn’t working really good. But I didn’t give up on New Orleans."

As an evacuee in St. Louis, he kept returning, often sleeping on the floors of friend’s galleries.

"That’s why I try to give back to the community,"M.Sani says. "I’ve been there. I see it, I live it. If you can dream great, your dream can come true. So I think New Orleans is home now. When people say are you happy here, I say, I make people happy."

M.Sani opened his current gallery on Royal Street in 2010.

"When I opened there wasn’t a gallery in the block. There’s a couple galleries that have been here for a year. New galleries keep opening up and now things keep rolling. We now have more galleries in this 800 block than any other in the Quarter. Probably New Orleans."

Now M.Sani pays back the community that treated him so well with fundraisers like this weekend’s Garden-Aid. Twice a month he holds free art classes for children. At his most recent session, he invited a poet to write original verses for each child, based on his or her artwork.

"If we don’t a special guest like a poet or a person to show the kids something, we just roll the music and they just go free and start dancing here."

A monthly open mic night invites young people to share other kinds of talents.

"My goal is, if you can take young people and just keep them busy, just for one hour, two, three hour, that would be great."

Open mic night, he says offers "spoken work, singing, there is magic --this guy comes and practices magic. There are different talents, different music. Some people just come and dance. And I do participate because I sing. I am a French opera."

M.Sani puts that same kind of energy into his paintings, whether a deep silhouette of African animals or a jazz cat playing a trombone. It’s a way, he says, of sharing his attitude about life with the world.

"That’s the goal," he explains. "if you see the mojo or the line that makes you feel good, art that makes you feel good. At the same time, I have different paintings that I do that reflect society."

One recurring theme in his work: cats.

"We used to have a small cat at home. He’d just show up and became like a home cat," M.Sani says. "Coming to New Orleans, I start seeing cats again. Somehow, I see a black cat everywhere. Music has long life and cat has long life. When I go back home Uptown, there are a bunch of cats waiting to say hi. We recently had a cat who visited us in the 800 block. I think everybody knows this cat. He just shows up here and makes it home."

M.Sani also favors mixed-media canvases of musical instruments, as well as African landscapes. "I do have scenes from Cameroon, like the water carrier. Water is so important to me, because when I was a kid, it took us a lot to get some water. Water is life to me."

For M.Sani, life itself is like one big canvas, waiting to be filled with movement.

"They call me the lord of the dance," he says with a laugh. "Hey, the lord of the dance is here. I say, Yeah. I melt different tribes and even modern dance, like break dance. Also from different countries. And I can do a little rock and roll, too.

"Come see me. Lord of the Dance. That will make you feel good."

Renee Peck is editor of NolaVie. Email her at [email protected]