By Anya Shukla
In 2019, Elisheba Johnson, Inye Wokoma, Jill Freidburg, and Rachel Kessler started Wa Na Wari, a Seattle organization housed in the historically-black Central District. Located in Wokoma’s grandmother’s home, Wa Na Wari celebrates black artistry through events, workshops, and art exhibits. I spoke with Elisheba Johnson to learn more about her artistic practice, as well as Wa Na Wari as a whole.
Q: How did you first get started in art?
A: I started writing poetry in middle school. I wanted to be the Poet Laureate of the United States—which was, you know, like who ever gets that job, but I thought it’d be cool. Other than that, however, I never really thought I would be in the art world. But something just moved me right before my senior year of high school: I was like, “I want to go to art school.” So I started taking every art class I could take, in school and outside of school, pulled my portfolio together, and got into Cornish College of the Arts.
Q: What was your path to Wa Na Wari?
A: When I got out of college, I started this gallery called Fair Gallery Café, mostly because I didn't know where to show my work as a black artist in Seattle. I was also interested in the interdisciplinary aspect of art: the idea was to have a gallery that had dance, theater, poetry. I was crazy and thought, “The bar will pay for everything!” And the bar—running a bar is complicated. (Laughs.) But I had Fair for six years. Then I started working at the Office of Arts and Culture. A lot of my work there was again about increasing access to art opportunities for artists of color. Through one of my projects at the City, I worked with Inye Wokoma, Jill Friedburg, and Rachel Kessler.
Inye had said to us that his grandmother's house should be a cultural center. At the same time, I had thought of this idea: what would it mean to go into black-owned houses in these gentrified areas and then have house parties as an act of performance? So we realized, “We've got to rent Inye's grandma's house! That’s what it is! The house parties need to be at her house.” We pitched this idea, wrote a grant, and then, all of a sudden, either Inye was gonna have to put the house on the market, or we were gonna have to rent it. And we decided to rent the house.
Q: I saw on your website that you see Wa Na Wari as a protest against redlining and displacement. Could you speak to that?
A: Wa Na Wari is grounded in this neighborhood that used to be more than 80% black, but is now about 10% black; Inye is one of two black people in his neighborhood. So we’re thinking about the organization’s social implications: what does it mean for black people to come back and gather in a space that's so white now?
But this project isn’t just anti-displacement. This project is about joy; this project is about resiliency. I think that's why people are interested in our work. So many stories are sad stories: “We lost our house; we lost our business.” This is a happy story about coming back and renewing.
Q: What in this process has brought you the most joy?
A: So much. We talk a lot about one particular exhibit-closing-night barbecue we had. The front yard and the backyard and the house were full of people. It was a moment where it was clear for us what this space is supposed to do: make people feel safe and welcome.
Also, the artists we host are so cool! As a curator, I get excited about working with artists, and they get excited about the history of the house and how they'll make art around it.
Q: What do you look for in the artists you bring to the space?
A: I just pick artists whose work I like. I go, “Oh my god, their artwork is so cool!” And I just reach out. It's weird, because I'll cold email these people, but almost everybody says, “I would totally love to do a show there!”
I do intentionally pair artists together, though. The black arts community is kinda small here in Seattle, so I want to make sure I spread people out over time, and I want to really nurture their practice. Our goal later is to have artist-in-residence space: we’ll give an artist space for three months, give them materials, and they develop their work and show it at Wa Na Wari.
Q: On that note, what are your future plans for Wa Na Wari?
A: We have a lot of plans. We’re gonna take over the world! (Laughs.) No. But we do have some really big plans. One is buying Inye’s grandmother’s house. His grandfather and grandmother at one time had six houses, but they’ve lost most of those houses over time, for obvious gentrification/displacement reasons. That’s why Wa Na Wari is important: because we’re actually paying the rent and taxes for them to keep the home in the family. That said, we’d like to buy the house and put it in a community land trust, so that the family always owns it, but the nonprofit has a long-term lease. Then the goal is to buy more houses to be affordable housing, or art spaces, or affordable housing for black artists.
Another plan is changing our lease from single-family zoning to a community center. This is a really expensive process and why most organizations like ours close, so we think it’s really important that we change our lease, then advocate for other POC organizations who might find this red tape impossible.
These are really big dreams, though. Sometimes I’m like, “Can this happen?”... and then I think, “Sure, why not?”
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.