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Sunday, May 22, 2022

Wa Na Wari Celebrates Black Art And Creativity In A Central District Neighborhood

The Wa Na Wari project dedicated to Black creativity is located at 911 24th Ave. At their “Walk the Block” art fundraiser this fall, Wa Na Wari invited people in to explore art in the gallery inside the house. (Photo by Jean Wong)

By Jean Wong and Elsje Andonian, The Seattle Medium

Nestled in the Central District is a house typical for the neighborhood but richly different for the treasure trove of art and creativity inside. 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, meaning “our home” in the Kalabari language of Southern Nigeria, is a community-based 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 document.

The story begins in 1951 when Frank and Goldyne Green purchased their second home, on 911 24th Ave. After five generations of the Greens’ families and friends living in the house, the four founders of Wa Na Wari rented it, not for people to live in, but to preserve the space for the Black community.

Inye Wokoma is the Greens’ grandson and one of the co-founders of Wa Na Wari.

“The motive for founding Wa Na Wari really is to prevent the sale of the house. The house of the time belonged to my grandmother who has since passed and the house was set to be sold to continue to fund her 24/7 care. We started Wa Na Wari to help stabilize her finances,” says Wokoma. “It was a way to support my grandmother and also to keep our family from having to lose another house in the neighborhood and pushing back against Black homeowners losing 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’re all artists. Art is at the center of our lives so we started our art center because it’s what we do,” Wokoma explains. “We rented the house and turned it into a community art space and that’s what we’ve been doing for the past two and a half years. It’s grown as people become more aware of what we’re doing.”

The gallery has housed a range of art by Black artists, including oil paintings, sculptures, written poetry and the spoken word, and mixed media. Each of the pieces are selected by Wa Na Wari’s curator, Elisheba Johnson. On display at the gallery now until the end of the year are pieces from Adetola Abatan, Natalie Ball, Amber Flame, and Vanessa German.

In addition to housing Black creativity and joy through curated art, the Wa Na Wari group is working 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 elements, is Wa Na Wari’s most recent endeavor in this vein.

CACE21’s main objective is to advocate for and empower Black homeowners in the CD by bringing Black homeowners and cultural workers into dialogue. A goal is to research the policies that support or work against gentrification and displacement, and then build awareness of these policies to homeowners affected by them.

Dr. Kristin McCowan, lead survey developer for CACE21, is an assistant professor at the University of Missouri-Columbia.

“Gentrification is not just this heady term that happens in a vacuum. Real people’s lives are impacted. What motivates me to be a part of this project is to understand what their experiences are and to fight back,” says McCowan. “It’s tearing families apart, it’s moving our communities farther out, it’s having a negative impact on our social capital and how we’re connected, our sense of belonging.”

The project consists of three phases: the qualitative survey stage, the quantitative stage and the real-life application stage.

The first stage involves finding as many Central District homeowners as possible, ideally more than 200. These sources will fill out a survey on their experiences with gentrification and other community pressures as researchers seek to understand the current situation. The second stage involves diving into the stories behind the data.

In the key third stage, Wa Na Wari will organize homeowner clinics. The CACE21 team is currently in the process of gathering sources to be part of their project. Phase one will launch in January 2022, or by the end of 2021.

“We are bringing homeowners together to learn, grow, and advocate for different policies that advance their ability to maintain their homes and address some of the barriers that we uncover throughout phase one and two,” says McCowan. “CACE21 is just one approach that Wa Na Wari is using to fight displacement. Through the CACE21 project, we have developed a full infrastructure that surrounds this research project.”

Community fundraising is essential to Wa Na Wari’s operation. In their latest fundraising event on Oct. 16, “Walk the Block,” artists created an outdoor exhibition along an 0.8-mile stretch near the Wa Na Wari house. Tickets to the event ranged from $25 to $350; it featured art, dance, music, storytelling and more. Stops along the way occurred in 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 an all-ages play space because play is how humans solve problems and learn, while they’re having fun.

 “The space carries an intentionally collaborative atmosphere, which can be felt the second one walks up the steps and through the door.

“Making art is meditative and expressive. It’s time in which 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 from Black writers, musicians, artists, and scholars, many of whom have roots in the Seattle area. The book is to be published this month, with book release events planned for November and December. Contributing writers and artists include Okanomodé, Chantal Gibson, Kamari Bright, and many more.

“The work that we’re doing is a way of creating space for folks that want to come back, and also for folks that 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 made strides of resistance to rewrite the narrative of the Central District by showcasing and returning Black art and culture to the neighborhood, and by sharing stories of community despite the gentrification that surrounds it.

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