Wa Na Wari celebrates black art and creativity in a central neighborhood
By Jean Wong and Elsje Andonian, The Seattle Medium
Nestled in the central district is a house typical of the district but richly different for the treasure of art and creativity within. The Wa Na Wari House at 911 24th Ave is a home for black belonging through art, historic preservation, and community connection.
Wa Na Wari, which means “our home” in the Kalabari language of southern Nigeria, is a community project created by artists to “reclaim black cultural space and make a statement about the importance of black land ownership in gentrified communities,” according to their mission statement.
The story begins in 1951 when Frank and Goldyne Green purchased their second home at 911 24th Ave. After five generations of Green families and friends living in the house, the four founders of Wa Na Wari rented it out, not for people to live in, but to preserve the space for the black community.
Inye Wokoma is the grandson of The Greens and one of the co-founders of Wa Na Wari.
“The motive for founding Wa Na Wari is really to prevent the sale of the house. The house at the time belonged to my late grandmother and the house needed to be sold to continue to fund her 24/7 care. We created Wa Na Wari to help her stabilize her finances,” says Wokoma. “It was a way to support my grandmother and also to save our family from having to lose another home in the neighborhood and to fend off black homeowners losing their homes in Seattle.”
Wa Na Wari was co-founded on April 5, 2019 by Wokoma, Elisheba Johnson, Rachel Kessler and Jill Freidberg.
“The four founders, we are all artists. Art is at the center of our lives, so we created our art center because that’s what we do,” says Wokoma. “We rented the house and turned it into a community art space and that’s what we’ve been doing for two and a half years. It has grown as people become more aware of what we do.
The gallery has housed a range of works by black artists, including oil paintings, sculptures, written and spoken poetry, and mixed media. Each of the pieces is selected by Wa Na Wari’s curator, Elisheba Johnson. Until the end of the year, the gallery exhibits pieces by Adetola Abatan, Natalie Ball, Amber Flame and Vanessa German.
In addition to housing Black creativity and joy through organized art, the Wa Na Wari group works to stop the displacement of Black residents in Seattle. The Central Area Cultural Ecosystem for the 21st Century (CACE21), a community-based research project with many components, is Wa Na Wari’s most recent initiative in this vein.
The main objective of CACE21 is to defend and empower black owners in CD by bringing black owners and cultural workers into dialogue. One of the goals is to research policies that support or work against gentrification and displacement, and then educate affected property owners about those policies.
Dr. Kristin McCowan, survey development lead for CACE21, is an assistant professor at the University of Missouri-Columbia.
“Gentrification is not just that heady term that happens in a vacuum. The lives of real people are impacted. What motivates me to be part of this project is to understand what their experiences are and to fight back,” says McCowan. “It’s tearing families apart, it’s pulling our communities apart, it’s negatively impacting our social capital and the way we’re connected, our sense of belonging.”
The project comprises three phases: the qualitative survey phase, the quantitative phase and the real-life application phase.
The first step is to find as many homeowners in the Central District as possible, ideally more than 200. These sources will complete a survey of their experiences with gentrification and other community pressures as researchers seek to understand the current situation. The second step is to dive into the stories behind the data.
In the third key step, Wa Na Wari will organize clinics for owners. The CACE21 team is currently gathering sources to be part of their project. The first phase will be launched in January 2022, or by the end of 2021.
“We bring homeowners together to learn, grow, and advocate for different policies that improve their ability to maintain their home and overcome some of the obstacles we uncover throughout phases one and two,” McCowan says. “CACE21 is just one of the approaches Wa Na Wari uses to address displacement. Through the CACE21 project, we have developed a complete infrastructure that surrounds this research project.
Community fundraising is essential to the operation of Wa Na Wari. At their latest fundraising event on October 16, “Walk the Block,” the artists created an outdoor exhibit along a 0.8-mile stretch near the Wa Na Wari house. Tickets for the event ranged from $25 to $350; it featured art, dance, music, storytelling and more. Stops along the way were at community gardens, parks, and Black-owned homes and businesses.
Lisa Meyers Bulmash, a mixed media artist whose work was featured at the event, describes Wa Na Wari as a space for people to express themselves freely.
“Wa Na Wari provides the physical and mental space to be ourselves in a welcoming atmosphere,” Bulmash said in an email. “In some ways, Wa Na Wari is like a play space for all ages, because play is how humans solve problems and learn, while having fun.
“The space exudes an intentionally collaborative vibe, which can be felt as soon as one climbs the steps and walks through the door.
“Making art is meditative and expressive. This is when I reaffirm who I am and what’s important to me,” Bulmash adds.
Wa Na Wari recently announced the publication of a book in collaboration with The 3rd Thing Press. Within the 180 full-color pages of ‘Joy Has a Sound: Black Sonic Visions’ is a collection of essays, poetry, scripts and other writings by writers, musicians, artists and scholars blacks, many of whom have roots in Seattle. region. The book is due for release this month, with book release events scheduled for November and December. Contributing writers and artists include Okanomodé, Chantal Gibson, Kamari Bright and many more.
“The work we do is a way of creating a space for people who want to come back, and also for people who still live here, to have a place in the neighborhood that reflects our community and our culture,” says Wokoma.
In the two and a half years since its founding, Wa Na Wari has taken giant strides in resistance to rewrite the narrative of the Central District by showcasing and restoring black art and culture to the neighbourhood, and sharing stories of community despite the gentrification that surrounds it. this.