On a pretty, tree-lined street in the Central District, a charming but unassuming gray and white house is taking a stand. In this rapidly changing neighborhood, it is an increasingly rare black-owned property, and now it is claiming space for black artists and storytellers.
This new arts center, which opened in March, is named Wa Na Wari, meaning “our home” in Kalabari, a language of Nigeria, the birthplace of the father of Inye Wokoma. Wokoma, a Seattle-based artist and filmmaker, is the caretaker of this house, which was bought by his grandparents in 1951.
Recently, before the opening party for the current round of art exhibitions, Wokoma and the other three founders — Jill Freidberg, a documentary filmmaker and oral historian; Elisheba Johnson, an artist and curator; and Rachel Kessler, a writer and artist — talked about how Wa Na Wari was founded and how it’s been received.
Since opening, they’ve hosted artist talks, performances and exhibitions, and commissioned art essays by local black leaders. And held parties. The parties are important.
The four founders initially came together last year when they gathered community input for a public art installation. Folks in the Central District had been clear: It’s crucial to preserve memories of this historically black neighborhood as it faces changing demographics and cost-elevating development, but it is equally important to proclaim that black folks are still here.
Johnson started wondering, “What if people had house parties in spaces that were going to be sold, as a kind of reclamation act?”
When the previous tenants moved out of the house that currently houses Wa Na Wari, Johnson said that question transformed into, “What if the house party was us renting this house? People could be able to gather and feel ownership in a neighborhood that is gentrified. Gathering is powerful. It is an anti-gentrification message.”
So, in addition to parties for exhibition openings and closings, they have informal open hours that are really just about welcoming people. Every morning they’re open, they brew a pot of coffee and folks trickle in to sit and work, or tour the various rooms that are filled with art and interactive experiences. You can click on vintage View-Masters to see archival photos of the neighborhood, pick up an old phone to listen to stories, or sit and read books on black history and culture.
Upstairs, in a former bedroom, you can mark your experiences in the Central District with pushpins on a map, or visit Shelf Life Community Story Project, an oral history project founded by Freidberg in 2016 that was pushed out of its previous location — next to the Promenade Red Apple — by redevelopment. Art by a rotating roster of local, regional, or national artists inhabits three other small rooms.
It shouldn’t be surprising that it feels very, well, homey; the four collaborators intentionally create that feeling. “The house is a space you’re familiar with,” Kessler says. “You feel like you can linger longer.”
The response has been enthusiastic, with black residents from around the region — both in and outside of the art world, along with other artists, writers and musicians, and a few neighbors, stopping by.
Artists and arts leaders of color point out the significance of the project. Portland-based artist Jeremy Okai Davis, whose bold, incisive paintings currently hang in one of the upstairs rooms, said, “It’s almost the most important thing in the art world — and the world in general — to have space that’s dedicated to voices that have for so long been muted or dampened.”
The founders see the act of congregating as a form of artistic activism, which can be connected with an international art movement called Social Practice. Social Practice considers community engagement and social relationships to be its medium.
Melanie Stevens, a Portland-based artist whose gorgeous, humorous fabric installation weaves through the main floor, said, “There are a lot of really important conversations happening around Social Practice as an art form, its origins, and its future. It’s extraordinary to be part of this process, like a note in the story.”
Johnson is filling the house with art “that is culturally relevant and responsive to people’s lives. Art has a way of getting people excited and riled up and ready to make change.”
For Wa Na Wari, that change is about persisting and creating in the present, while preserving the past. Wokoma, who now lives next door, grew up in a family-owned home on the next street over. As a child, he ran in and out of this house and others around the CD.
Asked about the changes he’s seen, he looked out the front bay window, unsure where to begin, then pointed to a car across the street. “Well, there’s Miss Sharon pulling out of her driveway. She’s the one remaining black neighbor on this block,” he said. “The complexion of the neighborhood has obviously changed but it’s about a lot more.”
He went on to talk about the sights and sounds he used to experience — music and lawn mowers and people stopping to chat. “It’s very sensory. There’s a specific kind of energy that covers you and saturates you. Sometimes, I feel like a fish out of water, like I’m living outside of my natural habitat.”
And what role might Wa Na Wari play in this altered environment? He smiled, almost ruefully, and said: “It’s like scuba gear, a life-sustaining apparatus, a thing that can keep you alive.”
Wa Na Wari, current exhibitions of art by Melanie Stevens, Rachael F., Jeremy Okai Davis and Alisa Sikelianos-Carter, 5-8 p.m. Thursdays, 2-8 p.m. Fridays, 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays, through July 28; 911 24th Ave., Seattle; free and open to the public; wanawari.org