Black History Month

Wa Na Wari Has a Vision for the Central District’s Black Future

How a public art project became a center for Black belonging.

By Malia Alexander February 28, 2022

Inye Wokoma and Elisheba Johnson seated in front of an exhibit at Wa Na Wari called Public Dreams of Fractured Futures by Chloe King.

Image: Susan Fried

A gray house with the phrase “Black Legacies Matter” engraved on a side column sits along 24th avenue in the Central District. A staircase leads to the front door, each of the seven steps etched with lines from the Langston Hughes poem, “Mother to Son.” A wooden rocking chair rests on the porch, joining in an occasional sway with the white banner reading “Wa Na Wari” that hangs between strings of bulbed lights.

It means “Our Home” in Kalabari, an Ijo language of Nigeria. The fifth-generation household, once owned by Frank and Goldyne Wokoma, is now a “container for Black joy,” showcasing Black history and culture through art exhibits, film screenings, and performances. Led by a four-person cohort, Wa Na Wari aims to provide a space where Black people can feel a sense of belonging—it’s a place where they can simultaneously feel seen and escape the hyper-visibility the comes from existing in white-dominated spaces. “Black communities are like oases of spaces where we can be whole human beings,” says Inye Wokoma, grandson of Frank and Goldyne and co-director of the organization. “They’re very special places.”

The Central District has long been a nucleus of Black art in Seattle. The neighborhood, famed for a flourishing twentieth-century jazz scene and home to artists like Jimmy Hendrix and Alvin “Junior” Raglin, consisted of Jewish Americans, Japanese Americans, and Black and African Americans during the 1970s.

A historically redlined area, Black people made up eighty percent of the population. Elisheba Johnson, one of the center’s four co-directors, recalls walking through the area, dog by her side, being approached with neighborly hellos, playful banter, and compliments directed to her pit bull. Never feeling out of place. Always accepted. Fast forward 20 years; the Central District is not the same place—Black people comprise close to zero percent of the total population. The neighborly hellos have vanished with the neighbors.

A current installation at Wa Na Wari.

“I complained my whole life that Seattle wasn’t Black enough when we were 12 percent of the population. And now we’re six,” says Johnson. And the shift wasn’t gradual; it was sudden. “Mass displacement,” is what Wokoma calls it. Some, Johnson knew, moved to Renton, some moved to Atlanta. But no one seems to know where the others went—it was a diaspora of sorts. “It’s very painful because people keep asking us, ‘Where did they go?’ and I can’t tell you,” says Johnson. To both Wokoma and Johnson, it felt like one day, fifty percent of their people simply evaporated.

Living in a state of constant disorientation, as Johnson puts it, searching for a place of belonging, is a common experience for the Black population still in the Central District after the exodus. “When those physical spaces go away, there’s a huge emotional, psychic gap in people’s lives.” Wokoma says. Wa Na Wari is their way of trying to make sense of a nonsensical world, of creating an island of refuge in a sea of change.

Takiyah Ward grew up in the Central District and has inherited a rich artistic tradition that Wa Na Wari is fighting to protect.

Image: Jake Gravbrot

Amid white hard hats and orange safety vests, between caution tape and scissor lifts, Takiyah Ward paints a mountain range comprised of the Central District’s most towering figures, including Chief Seattle and Judge Charles Johnson.

The artist grew up in the neighborhood, like her mother, and decades ago, her grandfather owned a storefront on Midtown.  “My family’s history is very much rooted in that particular place,” she says. “I wanted to figure out a way to cement that.” The mural pays homage to both her family and the larger community. The middle ground of the piece silhouettes focal points of the neighborhood, such as Mount Zion Church and Garfield High School, while the foreground depicts everything from the Super Bowl to  influential local jazz bands. “I just wanted to depict my understanding of the history of this place,” says Ward.

Ward was one of eight artists selected to work on the Midtown Square project. Her predominately black-and-white mural spans 120 feet and was completed during the construction of the Vulcan apartments on Jackson and 23rd. She envisions the work as a catalyst for communion and conversation.

This isn’t the first time Ward has been a conversation starter. Back in 2020, she was one of the artist curators for the Black Lives Matter mural in Capitol Hill. The Pioneer Square dweller lives just a block away from the courthouse, and remembers hearing the grenades, the screams, the flash-bombs that lit up the summer evenings. Her contribution to the mural, two Ts, takes a three-dimensional turn, creating the illusion of falling into a black abyss. Ward says the design was intended to make viewers see that the conversation about inequality goes beyond the current moment—that our current moment is tethered to historical realities. “It’s not just Black Lives Matter, it’s civil rights, it’s segregation, it’s Jim Crow, it’s slavery.” It’s also tethered to a vision for the future.

To Wokoma, belonging lies in feeling recognized, in safeguarding a shared understanding of the past that allows a community to imagine and reach for its future. “We believe that communities are an archive,”adds Johnson. Preserving a connection to the past for young artists like Ward is Wa Na Wari’s reason for being.

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