SEATTLE — In Washington state, Wa Na Wari is reclaiming a historically Black neighborhood that is on the brink of erasure. The Black family-owned house turned experimental gallery is headed by curator and artist Elisheba Johnson; artist and guardian of the house Inye Wokoma; and artists Jill Freidberg and Rachel Kessler, who turned their collaborative art and storytelling project into a long-term solution against gentrification and displacement as vehicles of white supremacy.
Wa Na Wari means “Our Home” in Kalabari, a Nigerian Ijo language and kingdom. Wokoma, its co-founder, is Kalabari through his father’s lineage. The house, which doubles as a community gathering space, deconstructs the traditional gallery by inviting visitors to experience multidisciplinary works made by Black local, national, and international artists. In the space, works by nationally known artists like Martine Syms and Nastassja E. Swift are roommates with emerging and established Pacific Northwest artists Marita Dingus and Henry Jackson Spieker to cross-pollinate Blackness both physically and conceptually.
Seattle became a Black culture hub during the Second Great Migration (1940-1970) when the mass exodus to the North and West became a solution for Black folx to find work after the Great Depression. Due to racially restrictive covenants, which restricted land use and purchase in the northern and southern neighborhoods of the city, many Black families rooted in the Central District. By the 1970s, the Black population of Seattle’s Central district was at a peak of 80%. Today, this is not the case.
“I am a born and raised Seattlite, I’ve lived here my entire life,” says Johnson. “When I was growing up the Black population was 12%. It was similar to cities like Denver, Colorado. It wasn’t a majority Black city but there was enough of a Black presence that you could feel it. Now it is about 6%, literally 50% of the people who look like me are gone.”
At the core of this project is a blueprint for creating social practices of care. In a city that is currently experiencing a homelessness crisis, Wa Na Wari rents the house at the market rate to help support the owner of the house, Wokoma’s grandmother. This method poses some important questions about the ways we can reimagine not only arts spaces, but land-use laws in general. What does it mean to sustain a Black family’s house, and a neighborhood’s culture, by activating these spaces using the arts? How can we challenge the existing model and reimagine arts and culture spaces, which are often associated with displacement?
Where people used to move to Seattle for its accessible arts scene, now people are just working to survive and can’t afford to be creative. This issue isn’t isolated to Black artists, but as Johnson reminds us, “This is the ecosystem we are working in and those pressures are even more complex and concentrated for Black artists.” As Black artists are looking for alternative studios and showing spaces, Wa Na Wari is organizing with Black homeowners to create new solutions. Could Black homeowners rent out a room to a Black artist as a studio space as a way to offset bills? Could they rent out a basement for a new gallery space? They are interested in scaling-up their model to eventually have it instituted into policy.
Part of Wa Na Wari’s mission is to commemorate and cement the Black cultural identity that refuses to fade, which begins with the origins of the house itself. When Wokowa’s grandfather and grandmother (Frank and Goldyne Green) moved to Seattle, they had a vision of owning a house on every block.
“At one point he had six homes in the neighborhood,” says Johnson. For the Black folks in the Central District, those houses operated like community spaces. “People come up to us all the time and say, ‘I grew up at this house,’ whether they lived there or just grew up there people have very salient memories of their time.”
The house is a portal. It might look a little different than what the Green’s imagined but as Johnson says it is steeped in its intentionality. It is the museum that everyone can have and art that everyone can own.
An exhibition exploring four different artists’ relationships to contemporary Black culture, via Black hair and bodies, opens March 14 at Wa Na Wari (91124th Ave, Seattle, WA) and continues through May 10, 2020. The exhibition features works by Lisa Jarrett, Lavett Ballard, Jamaal H. Tolbert, and Elise R. Peterson.
Editor’s note 3/14/2020 7:09pm EDT: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that the Wa Na Wari house is owned by Wokoma’s mother. It is instead owned by Wokoma’s grandmother.