Wa Na Wari gives home to Seattle’s Black culture and art

Wa Na Wari , hidden behind trees on a quiet residential street in the Central District. (Photo by Kamna Shastri)

Inye Wokoma’s grandmother’s house is shaded by tall, emerald-colored trees on a neat, residential street in the Central District.

But inside, it’s become more than just a home. In the past few months, it has turned into an art gallery, a home for Black artists to share their work and a space for community to gather and celebrate the historically Black community of Seattle’s Central District.

Wa Na Wari opened its doors in April. Wokoma partnered with artists Elisheba Johnson and Rachel Kessler, and filmmaker and radio  producer Jill Freidberg to transform his family’s home into a space for the arts.

Within five months, they’ve had 500 people come through their doors and have crowdsourced enough funds to keep the art and community gathering space going through the end of the year. The space showcases the artwork and creative genius of local Black artists. The main room, a cozy hard-wood affair, serves as a gathering space where music performances take place. Upstairs, bedrooms have been turned into gallery spaces with each room is dedicated to one artist.

Inye Wokoma (left) and Elisheba Johnson (right), co-founders of Wa Na Wari. (Photo by Kamna Shastri)

Creating a warm space

Wa Na Wari means “our home” in the Kalabari language of Southern Nigeria. It is a physical symbol of that specific, lively, interconnected relationship building, while simultaneously sustaining a space of belonging for Seattle’s Black community through art.

Wokoma and Johnson told The Seattle Globalist that the choice to use a house as an art gallery transforms the accessibility of art. Many people enjoy the space because of its “hominess,” in stark contrast to cold, sparsely filled gallery and museum walls.

“We play music so when you come in… and people feel like they can spend more time because they feel like they are in someone’s home,” Johnson said. “For people who don’t feel welcome in arts institutions, we break down that barrier for them.”

In fact, Wa Na Wari has no cordoned off areas, no large intimidating walls, like many art galleries have. Along the staircase of the historic home are installations made with recycled materials by Marita Dingus, ancestral masks celebrating Black womanhood by Nastassja Swift, and a room wallpapered in artist Xenobia Bailey’s colorful pattern of hairstyles and faces, with the words, “What does it mean to be surrounded by Blackness.” These multimedia pieces give space to complicated ideas and multilayered concepts.

Ancestral masks by Nastassja Swift. (Photo by Kamna Shastri)
Wallpaper and design by artist Xenobia Bailey. (Photo by Kamna Shastri)
Installation made with recycled materials by artist Marita Dingus. (Photo by Kamna Shastri)

Keeping life loud and vibrant

Wa Na Wari not only chips away elite art gallery culture’s inaccessibility, but it also chips away at the growing quiet and alienation that has come the Central District’s long established Black communities get displaced by new homes. Wa Na Wari symbolizes the lively neighborhood culture Wokoma remembers from his days growing up in the house a cross the street.

“I used to play my music in my room with my window wide open and my friends could hear my music around the corner coming down the block,” he said.

Nowadays, Wokoma is wary of who might be able to hear his music when he turns up the stereo at home. When he plays his music, he wonders what the neighbors might think — something that never came to mind before. The demographic shift towards a whiter neighborhood has perceptibly influenced how neighbors interact, and even how he views his own behavior.

Wokoma points to his neighbors’ relationships and interactions in the Central District of his childhood. Conversations wove through the streets, as neighbors called from the street to receive someone’s reply from the second story window.

But now, Wokoma says that is disappearing. As more White people have moved into his neighborhood, displacing the Black families that used to live there, the Central District has become increasingly quiet — with less music, conversation and neighborly interaction — and neighbors now tend to keep to themselves.

Wokoma calls it an example of how “integration” often is defined by people of color adopting the habits and norms of White culture, instead of the other way around — even when it is White people moving into spaces and neighborhoods historically populated by people of color.

“What happens when folks acclimate to life being louder and more vibrant?” Wokoma said.

Johnson says that Wa Na Wari is about creating belonging for Seattle’s Black community while bringing back the liveliness of what it means to be together in a space, whether that be through sharing stories or simply hearing the undulating lilt of voices in a space.

“The art is a container, but we consider ourselves hosts in a way, kind of building this community space that can expand out into other parts of the neighborhood.”

At a recent gathering children played outside, under the watchful eyes of adults who — with wordless understanding — shared in the responsibility of taking care of the children.

There is a collective mourning of the loss of community, which, Johnson says, was once signified by children playing outside, hopping from one neighbor’s house to another. Mending that rift means being a little louder and little more willing to break the silence.

“Sometimes you will say ‘hey, how are you doing’ – in community with each other, which means you have to break down the silos that have been built in the past 30 years in that way. We have to be a little bit louder with each other,” Johnson said.

As of July, the organization has raised $80,000 in just four months since opening to fund operations until the end of the year. Wa Na Wari plans to host more artists, music events and they hope to open up their smooth wooden floors for dancing as well.

For Johnson, this project is special because it looks beyond the challenges of gentrification.

“We are offering a small solution, we are showing a possibility and that is exciting for folks and I think people are willing to fund that,” she said.

If you go

Wa Na Wari is located at 911 24th Ave, Seattle, WA 98122. Hours are Thursdays 5pm – 8pm, Fridays 2pm – 8pm, Saturdays and Sundays 11am to 5pm. Events are listed on the gallery’s website.

Clarification: Inye Wokoma and Elisheba Johnson co-founded Wa Na Wari with two others, Jill Freidberg and Rachel Kessler. Freidberg and Kessler were not included in an earlier version of this article.