Photo depicting an artistic rendition of a shopping cart covered in fur-like strings and ribbons.

Emotional Baggage Carts and Painted Rice Paper at Wa Na Wari

Both local and national artists explore trauma and release at the Central District gallery.

by Jas Keimig

Theda Sandiford has always been making art. 

As the daughter of a Caribbean father and a German-Polish mother, the Queens-born artist grew up helping her grandmother sew sequins onto G-strings and feather headdresses for Carnival. “My grandmother was old school,” Sandiford told me over the phone recently. “She believed every proper young lady needed to know how to sew.” Deeply attuned to the world around her, Sandiford consistently found inspiration in items and objects that others might consider unworthy of artistic pursuit. 

“Someone else might say, ‘Look at that garbage!’ But I’m like, ‘Wow, look at the line, the shadows, and how the colors play with their surroundings!” the now Jersey City, New Jersey-based artist said of her creative ethos.

Drawing on her interest in fiber arts and found objects, Sandiford’s work is primarily centered around identity, cultural heritage, and community relationships. These interests culminate most powerfully in her grocery shopping cart pieces, called Emotional Baggage Carts, three of which are now on view at the Central District’s Wa Na Wari art space. 

Using (donated) old shopping carts as a base, Sandiford transforms the supermarket stalwart into physical manifestations of the emotional baggage we carry around with us every day. Colorful zip ties and yarn, painted recycled textiles, and rope all represent microaggressions, racial trauma, and anxiety that pepper the lived experiences of Black folks. Especially around the unwanted touching of hair and hostile comments made in public spaces. 

“With microaggressions, people are most often not even aware that they’re doing these things or that their words and actions have an impact. So all my work has this undercurrent of people defining for themselves how they want to be interacted with and expose implicit bias and dispose of it,” she said. “When you interact with one of the Emotional Baggage Carts, you’re releasing [microaggressions’] hold over you so that you can create space to have dialogue … You should come away feeling lighter than you did beforehand.” 

Sandiford is one of five artists exhibiting work at Wa Na Wari through July. Downstairs, Mississippi-based actor Amber Henry’s short film Trust Fall plays on a screen next to the art space’s kitchen and explores “building the courage it takes to trust your own self when there is no one there to catch you.” In the staircase gallery, Lagos, Nigeria’s Sotonye Jumbo has a suite of his “radiohead” paintings (no Thom Yorke), delightfully depicting steampunk-esque cyborgs with tape decks for heads. And taking up two rooms on the second floor is Seattle-based Xavier Kelley’s graffiti and Basquiat-inspired paintings that collectively use Black identity and symbology to imagine the future. 

In one of Wa Na Wari’s upstairs galleries, visitors are greeted by poet and artist Dez’Mon Omega Fair’s immersive video installation. The entire room is covered in paint-splattered canvas. Dozens of watercolor paintings on rice paper are scattered across the floor and haphazardly taped to the walls with printouts of Fair’s poems squished in between them. It’s a cozy yet frenetic space that feels like stepping directly into the artist’s mind. 

“There’s a lot going on [in this space], but then little messages come out, and that’s indicative of how people think,” they said in a recent interview. “We’re all trying to piece together what’s happening in our brain and trying to bring words to it. Language fails us all the time.”

In the middle of the space, a covered couch is available for viewers to sit on and watch his short film, “Prayer III.” Filmed on a ranch in southern California, the short features Fair enmeshed in the dry, arid landscape, sitting in the bed of a dusty pickup truck or reading by an abandoned pool on the property. At one point, they even wrap a giant cross in a long scroll of their own paintings.

Photo depicting Dez'Mon's video installation with paint covered tarps and scattered drawings covering most of the room.
Dez’Mon Omega Fair’s shrine-like video installation is like stepping foot into the artist’s brain. (Photo: Jas Keimig)

Raised in Orangeburg, South Carolina — and now residing in the Seattle area — Fair grew up in a deeply Christian household. And while he has mostly moved beyond those beliefs, the shadow of their religious upbringing still lives within them. Over the film’s images, Fair narrates a poem inspired both by the land and reckoning with their relationship with spirituality: “I/am/agnostic/I don’t know/I have uncertainty/Uncertainty to which/I believe I am OK…”

While each of the five artists currently exhibiting in Wa Na Wari uses different mediums to express themselves, all explore the power of using art to confront the emotional baggage and trauma that accompany us in our daily life. And remind us that we’re not alone in sorting through the experiences that make us uncomfortable.

“What I hope [viewers] get is that feeling of being acknowledged for dealing with their stuff,” said Sandiford about her work. “Whatever [racial or generational traumas] someone is carrying, if it doesn’t serve them anymore, they can get rid of it.”

The works of Theda Sandiford, Amber Henry, Sotonye Jumbo, Xavier Kelley, and Dez’Mon Omega Fair are on view at Wa Na Wari through July 9.

Jas Keimig is a writer and critic based in Seattle. They previously worked on staff at The Stranger, covering visual art, film, music, and stickers. Their work has also appeared in Crosscut, South Seattle Emerald, i-D, Netflix, and The Ticket. They also co-write Unstreamable for Scarecrow Video, a column and screening series highlighting films you can’t find on streaming services. They won a game show once.

📸 Featured Image: Theda Sandiford’s “Emotional Baggage Carts” offer space for viewers to unload their racial trauma and emotional baggage. (Photo: Jas Keimig)

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