“People will come in all the time and say, ‘This is Maunt Birdie’s house,’” said Wa Na Wari co-founder Elisheba Johnson in a recent conversation about the Central District art space‘s history, and its connection to a new exhibition, “Story Porch,” featuring installations by Virginia-based artist and historical strategist Free Egunfemi Bangura, opening Oct. 31. “That’s how people know the house, and it always functioned as a community space … I think this is [true] for lots of people of color, but we’re just speaking specifically about Black folks, that our houses acted as community spaces, so people will also tell us all the time they grew up in that house, whether or not they were part of the Green family, because they were always welcome there.”
Maunt (a portmanteau of “aunt” and “mom”) Birdie was the nickname of Wa Na Wari co-founder Inye Wokoma’s great-aunt Birdie, who lived in the house that eventually became Wa Na Wari. Wokoma’s grandparents, Frank and Goldyne Green, lived next door, and purchased a number of homes in Seattle, many of which have since been lost.
In Seattle’s rapidly gentrifying Central District, Wa Na Wari is both an example of the community spaces Johnson describes, and a record of the people who made them, something that’s very important to Bangura and “Story Porch.”
“Story Porch” is part of a collaboration between the German cultural association Goethe-Institut and the Philadelphia-based public art studio Monument Lab, where Bangura is a fellow. Entitled “Shaping the Past,” the project considers the role of public spaces, monuments and the public’s relationship to both. “Shaping the Past” began Oct. 8 and 9 with a public conference, held virtually. The Oct. 31 opening for “Story Porch” is intentionally timed to coincide with All Saints’ Day, and brings a local focus to the subject matter of “Shaping the Past,” transforming Wa Na Wari’s porch and front yard into a celebration of West African spiritual practices and ancestral storytelling. Work from other artists will be on view inside the house.
A portal to the past
Bangura’s subject matter and approach to art-making were a perfect fit for Wa Na Wari, Johnson said. “It’s really important for us to, one, create a Black-centered space where people feel safe and welcome, and to be their full selves, but also to have a place that holds memory, one, for what the community was, but for what we think the community can be.” History-making, she said, can include things like telling stories on the porch. Visual art. Anything can be part of an archive.
But too often, important pieces of history are left out, especially in communities and spaces of intentional erasure, as Bangura found to be the case in her hometown of Richmond, Virginia.
“My work as a historical strategist is something that I began because there are many, many stories in Richmond, Virginia, about Black freedom that have been deliberately submerged,” she said. Specifically, she said, the city’s official preservation community focused on narratives of the Lost Cause, presenting the area’s history from the view of the Confederacy. “And so I curate stories in Richmond, Virginia, about Black freedom, in ways that do not require you to have to read in order to know.”
This sentiment — that reading not be a barrier to engaging — is important to Bangura, whose work at Wa Na Wari will take the form of portals of varying shapes and designs dedicated to members of the Green family, and which invites viewers to engage with audio content rather than written materials. The portals outside Wa Na Wari will be dedicated to Frank and Goldyne Green, but they’ll also incorporate community members who have died recently, including community and cultural leader Rahwa Habte.
Bangura sees them all as archetypes — people who led lives of good character, who can prompt viewers to think of their own ancestors and loved ones who have died, and take them as an example for how to live their lives.
“It is an extension of encouraging people to live in such a way that they will be remembered fondly,” she said. “Because I think that there’s a disconnect between young people not realizing that grandmother energy that you have where it’s like, ‘Oh, my grandma is the best person in the world, she takes care of everybody, she makes cookies’ … people don’t realize that lady’s been practicing her entire life, since she was 15, of having good character.”
“Story Porch” exists as part of a lineage Bangura traces back to Yoruba traditions, one she doesn’t want to see erased in generalities. “I don’t want this piece to in any way lose the fact that these are West African spiritual traditions that we are upholding in the way that we tell story, in the way that we honor our ancestors,” she said. “And if people that are not West African are able to visit Wa Na Wari and incorporate these principles into their own lives and practice and family traditions, it’s very important that they know that they are weaving in West African spiritual traditions.”
The portals will be located at the entrance to Wa Na Wari, incorporating elements like light, fruit and flowers. Each will include a phone number visitors can call to hear a prompt asking them to identify their own important ancestors, linked to the Green family’s archetypal roles.
Viewers will also walk through a specially appointed walkway (the house’s steps are being painted for the installation), and the yard will house a stage and church pews, a nod to Frank and Goldyne Green’s status as deacon and deaconess at Mount Zion Baptist Church.
A portal to the future
“Story Porch” is a rare installation in that viewers can experience it all outdoors, which may be a point of entry for those less inclined to spend time inside during the coronavirus outbreak.
On a recent visit, Johnson pointed out outdoor areas where viewers can safely spend their time. But the house itself is equipped with ample hand sanitizer, and signage limiting indoor capacity to five visitors and visits to 30 minutes or under, so if your comfort level allows, an indoor visit means even more art to see. Inside several of the house’s indoor gallery spaces, you’ll find a wide variety of striking work in sound, photography, mixed-media collage, video and textiles.
“The world is very different now from when this exhibition was envisioned,” write the curators in Wa Na Wari’s exhibition text. “When these artists were reached out to about having a show at Wa Na Wari there was no coronavirus or the massive movement for Black Lives that we are now in. But the work is even more relevant now than before.”
And it is. Upon entering Wa Na Wari’s Wilson Hall, visitors are met with Zahyr Lauren aka The Artist L. Haz’s “Where Beauty Reigns: Visual Meditations,” a collection of geometric, elaborately constructed drawings-turned-wall-hangings. What’s exciting about this work is its inclusion of process. Seeing the compact source material of the massive, earth-toned tapestries is a glimpse into the art-making, and Wa Na Wari takes it one step further by including a small area with a bench and drafting table, where you might just see the artist at work if you come by.
In the house’s upstairs gallery spaces, you’ll find Ilana Harris-Babou’s video piece “Human Design,” which cleverly, playfully interrogates the very real origins of cultural artifacts presented as merely décor in the West. Harris-Babou, who is Senegalese, traveled to the capital city of Dakar for this inquiry, and her video contains footage of Senegal’s Door of No Return at the Maison des Esclaves on Gorée Island. This site is a memorial to the people who were abducted from West Africa and enslaved in America, and its inclusion adds historical context to Harris-Babou’s point of view, as, per the curatorial notes, she “taunts and teases us to be better, to do our research and to of course stop cultural appropriation.”
In the gallery named for Maunt Birdie, Andrea Coleman’s mixed-media collages are a blast of color and style; in smudging and slicing family photos, then applying bright pinks, oranges and blues, Coleman deconstructs family images’ usual composed, static function of familial documentation. These pieces are large in scale, and have both the kinetic quality of video and a smoothed-out painterliness.
Zachary James Watkins’ “Listen to Clarence” rounds out the indoor offerings, with a sound and video piece pairing audio of Clarence B. Jones, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s speechwriter, with commissioned music and archival video from the civil rights movement. Like Coleman and Harris-Babou, Watkins’ piece is a reimagination of the archive, a deliberately constructed context in which to view and process the past.
If Bangura spoke of intentional submersion and a legacy of racist erasure of Black art and culture, the pieces at Wa Na Wari suggest the opposite: an intentional centering of what has always been vibrant, present and alive; a visible lineage of Black art and life in the Northwest and across the globe; and a glimpse of what’s still to come.