Wa Na Wari, a space for Black art, music, storytelling, and community events in the Central District was created to acknowledge the neighborhood’s history and culture as the area’s socioeconomic demographics shift.
“It’s a revolutionary act to have a party and to have Black people holding space to celebrate. While it is important, we see a lot of activism in the form of marches, protests, and demonstrations, but it’s also important to celebrate Black joy, creativity, and community,” said Rachel Kessler, one of Wa Na Wari’s executive council members with Inye Wokoma, Jill Freidberg, and Elisheba Johnson.
Wa Na Wari means “our home” in the Kalabari language of Southern Nigeria, where Wokoma’s father’s family is from. Wa Na Wari’s meaning references the past and future of the space, as prior to functioning as an art gallery and community venue, the home belonged to Wokoma’s grandmother since the early 1950s.
When the home on 24th was put on the market, the collective’s members decided the space was ideal for housing their “Living Room” project. According to Kessler, while writing a grant for creative capital for another project in March, the collective decided to instead apply for a grant to purchase Wokoma’s family home. With a mission of reclaiming Black spaces in the Central District, the Living Room project included archival photos between 1930-1990 of four pivotal intersections along 23rd, and narratives from community members discussing the evolution of the CD. The project’s combination of the photographs and stories explored re-establishing the relationship between the CD and its history; a notion the collective’s members recognized as the power of effective story-telling.
“Witnessing someone tell their story is a valuable act in storytelling. We realized the importance of having a space where information and culture can be passed on orally,” Kessler said. “Inye’s thought about it for years in various forms, and when the four of us came together to collaborate on the living room, we recognized we work well together. Inye started sharing this vision, and it made sense with the trajectory of all our respective work in art and activism.”
Wokoma’s family home combines all facets of the Wa Na Wari project. There’s a phone with oral histories, a map, and a kitchen with refreshments. The bedrooms serve as art galleries, currently displaying the work of four Black artists. There is gathering space home to Alchemy, a POC poetry series formerly hosted at Love City Love. Artists also give presentations about their work in the space, and the space is open to the public for working or hanging out. Kessler emphasizes how Wa Na Wari’s mission is manifested in the space being an old house.
“It’s an intimate space where people can gather as a community, different from gathering in a formal setting. There’s something about the acoustics and warmth of hardwood floors and old walls in a hundred year old house. It provides the resonance of all the residents who have lived there compared to the concrete and linoleum you encounter in your average community center,” said Kessler.
Wa Na Wari hosts weekend cookouts and live music. According to Kessler, these events have provided the CD’s Black community with a comfortable gathering space.
“There’s something about the audio of it. Inye’s described it as growing up in the CD in the 70s and 80s. You would hear certain sounds you just don’t hear now, like the neighbor’s music playing, or people talking and laughing.To Black people that came up in the CD, it’s a safe space. It’s just one house in the CD, but a lot of people have expressed when they come into that space, they feel like it’s the 80s again,” Kessler said.
According to Kessler, Wa Na Wari has already started to prove its role as a resource for Black creatives and community members in the Central District.
“I overheard a musician on the phone with his friend before he played and he was like, “I’m in the CD” and his friend responded, “There’s no place for music in the CD,” and he was like, “There is now!” Kessler said. “There is also one man who has been to almost every event, and he was talking about how he’s Black, he owns his family’s home that’s been in his family since the 50s, and one of his relatives wants to sell it. He was appreciating how Wa Na Wari is an example of the significance of a similar space.”
Kessler says Wa Na Wari has extended beyond the Living Room project’s mission to help Black people in the Central District “locate themselves in history and their memories,” providing an intimate community space conscious of the Central District’s history.
This month, Wa Na Wari and Western Bridge have worked together to bring Some What?, an artwork by Los Angeles artist Martine Syms, to the Central District center:
Syms’s work appropriates an image from a publication and designates it for placement in conventional advertising space. As it changes location, from the storefront of a commercial art gallery, to a billboard in a redeveloping neighborhood, the graphic alludes to what is to be consumed in its surroundings. Its original print enlarged many times over, the image loses resolution and specificity, relating in a physical way to its open-ended literal question: Want some?
If it looks familiar to you, it might be because you’ve seen it before. Some What? appeared in multiple locations throughout Seattle last year including a billboard poster on Capitol Hill.
To learn more about Wa Na Wari and how the collective plans to further the space’s mission, visit Wa Na Wari’s website at wanawari.org.
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