by Leija Farr
Seattle is ahead of the curve in a phenomenon, and not in a good way: the displacement of Black people in our city has left the idea of safe spaces undeniably malleable. The Central District, once a community replete with Black lives and culture, has undergone displacement for many years now. As a result, lineage and generational foundation have been relocated, as a new narrative builds itself in the vacancy.
“The idea of a Black neighborhood is literally in question in the United States,” said Sara Zewde. Zewde is one-fifth of the art collective responsible for art signs that you may have seen popping up around the Central District (other members of the collective include Azzurra Cox, Selina Hunstiger, Aria Goodman, and Daniela Rosner).
Paintings of a Black utopia flood the canvas as the words “Coming Soon” appear in the foreground with sign locations at Gerber Park, Pratt Park, Powell Barnett Park
and Lavizzo Park. More are coming. Postcards wait in plexiglass containers inviting people to share their thoughts or drawings on what they imagine Africatown to be.
Displaying images of deeply melanated people roaming an afrocentric city, it challenges traditional aesthetic. With elements of afrofuturism, it broadens the lens for what can be envisioned. For what the future looks like.
For Sara Zewde, it’s all about imagining a Black neighborhood where it has been lost — an imagination she states Black people, old and young, have never abandoned. A Seattle transplant, she came to this realization sitting in on Africatown community meetings.
“Everyone would always describe what they imagine Africatown is,” Zewde said. “They were all describing the same place; a parallel universe of the Central District that is Black”.
Wyking Garrett, the president of Africatown, who kept a spreadsheet of these imaginations and provided them to Zewde. She also runs design workshops where designers and community members design their ideas of what Africatown could become. Zewde, along with her collective, took these archives and turned words into visuals.
The group received grants from Seattle Design Foundation, Arts In Parks Program and National Science Foundation, and set out on cultivating a space that fed curiosity. The grounds for this supplementation is something Zewde did not want to be limited to the “white box.”
“I really don’t think of art as something that’s exhibited in a gallery,” Zewde said. “I think it’s anything you identify it to be, and can reflect on.”
By placing the art pieces outside, Zewde makes a Black neighborhood seem much more tangible.
When asked if her art was rebellious, instead Zewde described it as being subversive.
“Rebellious sounds like a bull in a China shop,” she said. “I would rather be the quiet piece of fine China that has the answers to the revolution written underneath it.”.
This desire to be mysterious to an extent is evident in the erection of the art signs, that found their way into the Central District without much explanation. And beyond being art, Zewde finds many parallels in creation to other aspects of life
“As time goes on, I’m really understanding the connection between art, politics, and architecture,” she said. “Art can sort of shape the way we see politics and architecture.”
Zewde continues shaping spaces outside of the sign project. The intersection of 23rd and Union, a corner in the Central District known for its contentious history, has become home to an outdoor plaza focused on the Black community.
“We had over 300 people from the neighborhood help paint and install … the concrete was formed by young Black men who never worked with concrete before.”
Themes in the plaza include a concrete living room and community coffee table, with a collage of people in the community fixed in place. It’s a small demonstration of dreams; a place where Black people aren’t being criminalized but rather existing in celebration and love. It took elements of the signs and made it reality.
As Zewde continues her artistic journey, she draws concentric circles in her mind about the next layer of her concepts: shifting art from two-dimensional into interactive three-dimensional space.
She describes it as tasting freedom; feeding curiosity much more. In her eyes, imagining is just one step into the preservation of Black identity. She hopes to see Africatown become a thriving place that millions from around the world flock to see. All in all, the “soul” of the city is something she, as well as others, do not want to see displaced.
“Inspiring people to think bigger about what’s possible could really inspire a movement,” she said. “Around public space, around construction and around the notion of the Black community.”
For more information of the project visit http://www.comingsoonafricatown.com.
Photos Courtesy Sara Zewde.