Wa Na Wari is a home for Black art, stories, and connection in Seattle’s Central District, a gentrified space and one of Seattle’s historically redlined neighborhoods. The project is a collaborative project between Inye Wokoma, Elisheba Johnson, Rachel Kessler, and Jill Freidberg. We have transformed a Black-owned rental home into an active Black art space and, beginning in April of 2019, we are launching a range of art and media activities and programs including:
An oral history studio for gathering and archiving community stories facilitated by Shelf Life Community Story Project and Ijo Arts Media Group.
Media stations throughout the home where the public can hear and see community stories in video, audio, and photographic formats
•Monthly art exhibitions
•Artist talks, and Live performances.
•Regularly scheduled projections in the front picture window of the home and viewable from the street
•A digital media station where the public can scan family photos and documents for their personal archives
There are no spaces in Seattle where Black people can share their stories, map their childhood, reunite with old friends, and make art, all while holding space in a neighborhood that has tried to push them out. Seattle’s Central Area has gone from 80% Black in the 1970s to 14% today. When Seattle’s “Black community” was centralized, spending time together was effortless. This created an environment where cultural, artistic, social, economic and political innovation could thrive. Community building was a necessity and thus a way of life. We are creating that experience again, on a smaller scale.
Two of us, Inye and Elisheba, are Black artists directly impacted by Seattle’s displacement and affordability crisis. Inye Wokoma’s grandmother is 93 years old and living with Alzheimers. As the guardian of her estate he has been fighting on her behalf to maintain ownership of the homes she and her husband work their entire lives for. Elisheba Johnson, born and raised in Seattle, and yet still cannot afford to live in the city. Their stories are reflective of what the housing crisis looks like for Black artists in Seattle. Two of us, Jill and Rachel, are white artists using art and stories to challenge white supremacy, especially as it is expressed through gentrification and displacement. There are links below where you can learn more about each of us.
Our choice to site Wa Na Wari in a home is intentional. Out of financial need, the home has typically been rented as close to market rate as possible. This has put the home out of range for most black tenants, and thus adding to the social and cultural trend of gentrification. Until Now. Wa Na Nari will support this community elder while keeping Black artists and storytellers in the neighborhood. Wa Na Wari is a Kalabari (Southern Nigeria) phrase meaning ‘Our Home’. The name evokes a sense of purpose and intention to remain present in a place we consider home. Inye is Kalabari through his father’s lineage.
We are extremely excited about launching a project that secures a space for Black creativity and innovation while helping a legacy African-American homeowner stay rooted in the neighborhood. As a collective we secured enough resources to mount this project for the month of April, 2019, but we want this important project to have a chance to grow. That is why we are inviting you to help keep this going beyond one month.
We want to raise $57,000 to fund 8 months of Wa Na Wari, from May to December 2019. That allows us a bare bones operational budget of $5500 per month covering rent, utilities, stipends for guest exhibiting artists, supplies and administrative costs (hello IRS and transaction fees!). With your support and our continued sweat equity we can keep this project going while we work on securing long-term funding.
This is a ‘from the ground up to the sky’ bootstrap effort.
Let’s make it happen.
-Inye, Elisheba, Jill and Rachel.
About The Artists
The four of us have been working collaboratively to create spaces where Central Area residents (current and displaced) can come together and connect through neighborhood stories and art. We’ve hosted projection nights, mapping exercises, parties, and spoken word events. In 2018, we created a series of public art experiences asking historic residents of Seattle’s Central Area how public art and community stories could serve the neighborhood. We designed a portable “living room” that invited community members to interact with neighborhood stories, archival images, maps, and VR, while responding to writing prompts and surveys. Much of what we’ve learned from those temporary experiences will be permanently integrated into the Wa Na Wari space.
Inye Wokoma’s family has lived in the Central District since the 1940s. As a journalist, filmmaker and visual artist, he explores themes of identity, community, history, land, politics and power through the lens of personal and visual narratives. His work is informed by a deep social practice that prioritizes the utility of his art to the collective welfare of his community. Three of his most recent projects, A Central Vision, An Elegant Utility, and This Is Who We Are, represent prismatic explorations of thehistory, current experience and future of Seattle’s African American Community. In addition to these projects, Inye has been working in collaboration with Seattle Public Library and colleague Jill Freidberg to create a catalog of oral histories of Seattleites reflecting on community history and current changes.
Inye completed a degree in journalism and filmmaking from Clark Atlanta University before establishing Ijo Arts Media Group in Seattle. His work as a photojournalist has appeared in USA Today, ColorsNW, Washington Law and Politics, and Chicago Wilderness, among others. In 2004 and 2006 respectively, he received two awards for editorial photography from the Society of Professional Journalists Western Washington Chapter, for coverage of the communities of color in the wake of 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina. His collaboration with journalist Silja Talvi on Washington State’s three strikes law won a 2004 National Council on Crime and Delinquency PASS Award for criminal justice reportage. These journalism awards were earned while shooting for ColorsNW Magazine under the editorial guidance of Naomi Ishisaka. His lm Lost & (Puget) Sound, received a 2012 Telly Award and won Best Film for Youth at the Colorado Environmental Film Festival. In 2017, he participated in the visual arts group show Borderlands, which went on to receive an Americans for the Arts 2018 Public Art Network Year in Review Award, for its collective exploration of national identity, immigration, and belonging.
Inye continues to serve his community from his home in Seattle’s Central District, where he currently serves as board president for LANGSTON. He was a founding board member and former board president for Got Green and also served on the board of Nature Consortium.
Jill Freidberg’s work reflects her belief that responsible storytelling can build understanding and solidarity across borders and across the street. Freidberg is a documentary filmmaker, oral historian, radio producer, and youth media educator. She founded Shelf Life, a community story project using oral history, photography, public art, and podcasts to amplify community voices, learn from neighborhood stories, and interrupt narratives of erasure in Seattle’s Central District. For 18 months, Shelf Life occupied a Central District storefront. In that space, Shelf Life interviewed over 70 community members, provided free workshops in audio recording and interview techniques, hosted youth art exhibits, and convened neighborhood celebrations. After the storefront was demolished for market rate development, Freidberg co-produced a ten-episode podcast featuring stories gathered in Shelf Life interviews.
Freidberg has produced and directed four award-winning feature-length documentaries, including the ground-breaking collaborative effort This is What Democracy Looks Like (2000), and countless documentary shorts. Freidberg teaches media production at the University of Washington Bothell.
Rachel Kessler is a writer, cartoonist, multi-disciplinary collaborator and educator who explores landscape and community. As a mother of young children with limited resources, she experimented with boundary-breaking performance art and video, co-founding interactive poetry collaborations Typing Explosion and Vis-à-Vis Society. Her work is deeply rooted in place: she lives and works on Yesler Way, the street her great-great grandparents immigrated to, worked on, and died on. Currently she works on a community cartography project called “Profanity Hill: A Tour of Yesler Way” and is an Artist-In-Residence at public housing project Yesler Terrace, where community members activated a vacant apartment slated for demolition with live music, storytelling, potlucks, dancing, and collective murals.
Elisheba Johnson is a conceptual artist heavily influenced by the Fluxus movement and the accessibility of art experiences and objects. She sees art “taking the role of philosophy in the 21st century” and providing “the frame for discussing and solving our complex and important civic problems”.
Johnson, who has a BFA from Cornish College of the Arts, was the owner of Faire Gallery Café, a multi-use art space that held art exhibitions, music shows, poetry readings and creative gatherings. Since 2013, Johnson has been at the Seattle Office of Arts & Culture where she is a public art project manager and works on capacity building initiatives.
In 2018, Johnson started a public art practice with her collaborator Kristen Ramirez. They believe in creating opportunities that bring equity, accessibility, relevance, and engagement to a community, and they believe that every project ought to begin with meaningful engagement with the people who occupy the place, whether through questionnaires, storytelling, historical research, or celebration. Elisheba is currently a member of the Americans for the Arts Emerging Leaders Network advisory council and has won four Americans for the Arts Public Art Year in Review Awards for her work.