by Georgia S. McDade
photos by Susan Fried
Do you remember Jordan’s Drug Store? Have you heard of Bluma’s Deli? Accent on Travel? Liberty Bank? Kirk’s Laundry? Black Arts West? Joy Unlimited? Thompson’s Point of View, Black and Tan, Miss Helen’s Diner? Tiki’s Tavern,? Mardi Gras? Red Apple? The list could be longer, but if you recognize these names, you know they are businesses gone from Seattle’s Central District or CD. Though reasons for their disappearances differ, the word “gentrification” enters conversations often. New buildings, several stories high, often in bright colors, dot the neighborhood. By the time this is printed, a few more landmarks may be gone or going. This is today’s CD.
In stepped Inye Wokoma, a lifetime CD resident, photographer, filmmaker, and visual artist. He captured some of the past CD with his Frye Art Museum exhibit This Is Who We Are, “a meditation on holding space in a gentrifying neighborhood and reconciling that with the history and present reality of being on Duwamish land.” His An Elegant Utility at the Northwest African American Museum pictures and presents artifacts from the daily life of his grandfather Frank Green in the Central District. Both feature commentary, especially through photographs and videos and sometimes a display of something that may initially seem important to only the Green Family. Wokoma always emphasizes family which is the starting point of the community. Community is uppermost. Community is invaluable.
Though astounding the exhibits were, Wokoma moved to a more permanent way to capture the CD: The house at 911 24th Avenue, which has been in his family for four generations.
Aware that change is constant, Wokoma is determined not to sell his home, nor that of his ailing grandmother Goldyne Green, widow of Frank, the business-minded person who purchased six houses and rented them to relatives at an affordable price. With able assistance from other visionaries Elisheba Johnson, Jill Freidberg, and Rachel Kessler, the Greens’ house became Wa Na Wari — “our home,” in the Kalabari language of southern Nigeria.
The “our” is African Americans in Seattle’s CD; but the house welcomes anyone interested in African or African-American art — paintings, illustrations, poetry, sculpture, music, drawings, stories, and films. Interest can be the desire to discover and/or learn about such art. Interest can be displaying works. Interest can be donating to Wa Na Wari or the artists whose works are shared.
Elisheba Johnson is dedicated to creating spaces for “emerging and POC [people of color] artists to create and showcase their work.” The Seattle CD native does not hesitate to reveal that art “transformed” her; she is convinced it can do the same for anyone involved in any way. She possesses a résumé long and varied: owner of Faire Gallery Café for six years; art project manager in the Seattle Office of Arts & Culture where she works on capacity building initiatives including Seattle Arts Team (SALT) and Public Art Boot Camp; multi-media artist; poet; novelist; curator; entrepreneur.
As one of the founders of COLLECT, Johnson conducts a monthly curated art tour with one purpose in mind: to inspire a new generation of art collectors. Elisheba is currently a member of the Americans for the Arts Emerging Leaders Network advisory council. Johnson seems to make art out of everything! One of her shows is entitled “but a dream”; another is “You Wouldn’t Have This Problem If You Lost Weight.” It seems all of her work has been leading to this position at Wa Na Wari where all artists are invited.
Collaborators Jill Freidberg and Rachel Kessler complete the Wa Na Wari team with cornucopias of skills. Documentary filmmaker Freidberg was the force behind Shelf Life, an integral part of “Our Home.” Shelf Life defines itself as “an independent collective of photographers, artists, librarians, historians, filmmakers, and educators.”
For about two years, she and co-workers collected stories from Central Area residents, always treating them as the individuals they are and not deceiving and/or exploiting them as has so often been the case. The Shelf Life website spells out the process and details of the project. These recordings are housed in Wa Na Wari.
In the words of partner Rachel Kessler, she is “a writer, cartoonist, multi-disciplinary collaborator, and educator who explores landscape and community.” A long list of documentary videos and interactive installations characterize her work and make her a perfect member of the Wa Na Wari team. “What We Treasure: Stories of Yesler Terrace,” “Backstory,” “Public Health Poems,” “We Are Still Here,” and “This is What Democracy Looks Like,” a film about the 1999 World Trade organization Battle in Seattle, are among her creations covering the Puget Sound area. Sounds, photos, and videos starring the persons whose stories are being told exist for posterity. At any time, she may be leading tours, giving lectures, writing books and poems, making maps and films, or constructing installations.
A combination of the ideas and visions of these four persons give Wa Na Wari an excellent foundation — and all for the benefit of the community in the community. This place is designed for “creative engagement”; it is a “pop-up living room,” a space for two-dimensional and three-dimensional work, experimental work.
The four visionaries welcome partnerships with other organizations as long as the organizations are also determined to contribute to the vision. They want to provide affordable access to local, regional, and national artists, be they amateurs or professionals. Too often the art world is as gated as other parts of society. Wa Na Wari opens the gate wider and may indeed pave the way for more such sites thereby opening the gate wider still.
First, there’s a porch, an integral part of the homes of many, a meeting place in and of itself. Much African-American fellowship, worship, organization, and rebellion materialized on the porch. A step inside shows the works of an artist, possibly his or her first showing.
Artists of all levels are invited to make an appointment to show what they have created or constructed in the spaces at Wa Na Wari. Having a place to sell their creations is one hurdle artists, especially new and unknown artists and writers in every genre, can ignore, at least for a while.
Rotary telephones on hand provide visitors with recordings of stories told by Central Area residents. Events of interest captured on videos play throughout the house. Meetings of community interest are held at Wa Na Wari. Homeowners needing support to maintain and keep their houses may meet, strategize to bolster each other. Special occasions could be an art exhibit or a workshop.
“We want to meet the needs of the culture.” There’s space to grieve or mourn the community as it once was but no space or time to bury the community. As Wa Na Wari preserves some of the past, Wa Na Wari accentuates life.
Recently artist and filmmaker Edgar Arceneaux conducted a workshop at Wa Na Wari. At the time, Arceneaux’s Library of Black Lies was displayed at the University of Washington’s Henry Art Gallery. Housed in what could be described as a cabin are shelves of books, some that are really unread and unfolded Wall Street Journals dipped in black acrylic paint, some partially covered with sugar crystals, some with titles altered or partially obscured. Among the books are several on Bill Cosby and a set of Arthur S. Maxwell’s ten-volume The Bible Story. Participants in the workshop were instructed to build their own libraries and select their own categories.
Among other artists who have appeared are Jeremy Okai Davis (portraiture), Alisa Sikelianos-Carter (mixed media), Melanie Stevens (artist talk), Rachael Ferguson (sound artist), Blue Meadows (music), the Unapologetic Artists and Creatives (photography), Chi Moscou Jackson (collage), Ariella Tai (film), Howard Mitchell (film), Paul Rucker (visual artist, composer, and musician), and Alchemy Poetry Series
Visit https://www.wanawari.org/ for a list of its programs.
Featured Image: Members of the Wa Na Wari team — Rachel Kessler, Inye Wokoma (standing) Elisheba Johnson and Jill Freidberg — pose for a photo in the living room of the Wa Na Wari house. (Photo: Susan Fried)