Photo depicting Owuor Arunga (playing trumpet) with a drumline following behind.

Wa Na Wari’s ‘Walk the Block’ Fundraiser Will Center Community Art Experiences

by Sarah Neilson

On Saturday, Oct. 16, from 3 to 6 p.m., Wa Na Wari will be holding its annual fall fundraiser event in a brand new way. Tomorrow, “Walk the Block” will be a pop-up Central District art walk of art installations, dance and musical performance, video, and food. The outdoor festival will showcase and celebrate the work of Black artists working in a multitude of mediums across a 0.8 mile stretch starting at Wa Na Wari and including neighborhood spaces like parks, gardens, and Black-owned homes and businesses. There will be food and drinks available for purchase, live DJs, and even “artbrellas” — umbrellas featuring work from artists Zahyr Lauren and Jazz Brown. 

Community is at the center of Wa Na Wari’s ethos. Specifically, the vitality and presence of Black art and creativity in the historically redlined Central District which, according to Wa Na Wari’s website, has seen a reduction of its Black population from 80% in 1970 to less than 10% today due to multiple waves of gentrification. Located in a fifth-generation Black-owned home, the space itself is stewarded by one of the four founding artists, Inye Wokoma, the grandson of Frank and Goldyne Green, who purchased the house in 1951. Despite the ongoing neighborhood displacement, Wa Na Wari and the people behind it are committed to decentering the narrative of erasure that often gets tied into discussions of gentrification.

“Showing the stories of people that made this neighborhood so great, are still making this neighborhood so great, is really important,” said Elisheba Johnson, Wa Na Wari’s curator and a co-founding artist, about Saturday’s “Walk the Block” event.

Last year, Wa Na Wari held a virtual fundraiser that Johnson described as very successful. With the pandemic still heavily impacting life on all scales and the need to safely connect in person growing stronger, this year the Wa Na Wari team decided to do something different. “Walk the Block,” they said, is shaping up to be one of their most impressive events yet. “We’re excited about people being able to get out into the neighborhood and have a relationship to the neighborhood through the eyes of art,” Johnson said, adding that this is the pilot year for what will likely become an annual event. 

Artists whose work will be featured include Barbara Earl Thomas, Sable Elyse Smith, Martine Syms, Marita Dingus, Lisa Myers Bulmash, Owour Arunga, Nia Amina Minor and friends, Kimisha Turner, Northwest Tap Connection, Zahyr Lauren, Chloe King, Black Embodiments Studio, Jazz Brown, Gary Hammon and friends, DJ Riz, Larry Mizell Jr., the Shelf Life Community Story Project, and Vis-a-Vis Society. Food (including vegan and vegetarian options) will be available from Mama Sambusa Kitchen and Chef Tarik Abdullah from Feed The People Seattle, and drinks (alcoholic and non-alcoholic) from Erudite & Stone and Central Cafe.

“I think it’s exciting, especially since the neighborhood has changed so much, that there’s these ways that we’ve been able to activate our relationships with neighbors and community organizations to come together for one event that is all ages and for everybody,” Johnson said. “We’re really excited about that, and using this as a tool to be able to pay artists, pay community organizations, [while] also highlighting the neighborhood and the uniqueness of it.” 

Outside Wa Na Wari in Seattle’s Central District. (Photo: Inye Wokoma)

Lisa Myers Bulmash, a collage and book artist who recently had a show at Wa Na Wari, said she became aware of the organization when it first opened in 2019. When she met Elisheba Johnson, Bulmash said, they just connected. “We have a lot of things in common. We’re both artists and mothers … the best thing about Wa Na Wari is, I don’t think anybody has ever walked in their doors and not felt welcome.” 

The work Bulmash is presenting at “Walk the Block” is called “Traveling Community.” “My husband and I have been watching this show called ‘Doom Patrol,’” she said, describing the inspiration for her interactive collage artwork. “[In the show], there was a character called Danny the Street, who is a sentient moving block of a small town. Part of the magic is that it’s always been there. But it’s sentient, so it was actually moving and communicating with the people in its community.” That got Bulmash thinking “about the [idea of] portable community. No matter where you go, you have people supporting you and cheering you on.”

“I think community art has to be reciprocal,” Bulmash continued. “There are plenty of examples of big famous artists sweeping into a community and transforming this little patch of ground into public art or some kind of installation. And the art has nothing to do with the people who were already there. That kind of public art bothers me somewhat because it seems parallel to the process of gentrification.”

Marita Dingus, a mixed media sculptor, shares a similar sentiment. “The public needs to relate to and appreciate [community art],” she said. “There’s all kinds of levels, but it should be about that community that the art is from.” At “Walk the Block,” Dingus will be exhibiting a dozen 3-foot to 15-foot sculptures of Black people, mostly children, presented like family or community outdoors in the Coyote Central courtyard.

Zahyr Lauren, also known as the The Artist L.Haz, is another former Wa Na Wari exhibitor whose work will appear at “Walk the Block” on one of the artbrellas. “Wa Na Wari was where I had my first show, a textile show, at the height of the ’rona,” Z said. Z, who is from San Jose, California, describes their work as meditative and hopes that “the work engulfs other people in the same kind of peace that was felt during each works’ creation.” Z’s work on the artbrella is called “Waves Orb.” Z describes it as a “mediation on water and how much we need it.”

“Community art, to me, is everything,” Z said. “If it wasn’t for community, I wouldn’t have the opportunities I have. In public art, there’s more opportunity for unknown artists to display their work without having a big name. It’s more accessible.”

Other installations will include work from Chloe King, a young artist who graduated from Cornish College of the Arts this year. “She is taking her two-dimensional practice and working three-dimensionally,” Johnson said. “She’ll be in our P Patch; there’ll be different body parts that are covered in Mylar to talk about invisibility and camouflage, in particular the ways that we show up in spaces.” 

“Communities always make art,” Johnson said. “It’s just whether or not it’s amplified and celebrated. Art-making is an inherent part of gathering, whether it’s song, ritual, performance. Maybe it’s collaborative art like a mural. People can just get together and sing, and that is also a communal art experience. Part of our goal is to bring many different types of art experiences to one day, and people will actually remember that they don’t have to go into a particular gallery or space to experience art. Art is really all around us.”

Walk the Block” will take place rain or shine on Saturday, Oct. 16, between 3 and 6 p.m. Participants can begin the walk anytime between 3 and 5 p.m. Tickets, which are $25 and include bib numbers and maps, can be purchased online.

Sarah Neilson is a freelance writer. They can be found on Twitter @sarahmariewrote.

📸 Featured Image: Owuor Arunga (playing trumpet) performing at the 2020 Walk the Block. (Photo: Inye Wokoma)

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