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Wa na wari gallery visit

Checking out a piece by mixed-media artist Marin Burnett. Photo by Elizabeth Hunter.

Mother-Daughter Review: Wa Na Wari Shines

At home in an exceptional gallery

Wa na wari gallery visit

Our mother-daughter reviewers Elizabeth and Cory Hunter.

“Well, son, I’ll tell you,” Cora read haltingly, still new to spontaneous reading as we climbed the stairs to Wa Na Wari. She stumbled over some of the words to Langston Hughes’ poem Mother to Son, which is painted on the steps, but flashed a look of understanding when we read, “Life for me ain’t been no crystal stair.”

Wa Na Wari, in Seattle’s Central District, is an immersive community art project founded in 2019 by four Seattle artists distressed by the rapid gentrification of the traditionally African American neighborhood. They rented, renovated, and transformed the historic home into a community hub, a place for imagination, culture, music, food, and, of course, art. Their landlords are descendants of Frank and Goldyne Green, beloved community members since 1951.

Until now, Cora and I mainly viewed art in museums, so Cora was intrigued by the alternative art space. Especially when she was offered cookies to eat in the Wa Na Wari kitchen.

“Upstairs, you could forget you were even in a house,” she recalled later. “Except for the bathroom and that big bathtub!”

These little reminders of home—a claw foot bathtub, the smell of food cooking in the kitchen—are what make Wa Na Wari such a memorable art venue. No matter where you are, you are reminded: This is a home.

Downstairs Down Time

Elisheba Johnson, one of the founders and chief curator, has worked in galleries and museums around the region.

“Wa Na Wari deconstructs the ‘white cube.’ creating a safe and friendly environment for an arts experience,” she said. “The house tells us where the art should go, and informs what new meaning the work takes on in this fifth-generation Black-owned home.”

Johnson’s son, Emery, and his friend Lawford welcomed a shy Cora into the kitchen with Pokemon cards as I spoke with artist Brandon Donahue-Shipp, installing his exhibition on the first floor.

The exhibition—“Down Time” and “Table Time”—is appropriately sited in the house’s former living room and dining room. It consists of three enormous, freestanding works and three smaller pieces hung on the wall.

Wa na wari gallery visit

Installation of airbrush art by artist Brandon Donahue-Shipp. Photo courtesy Elizabeth Hunter

The airbrush has elevated

Brandon is a master of airbrush paint, on a self-proclaimed mission to “spread the airbrush gospel” by elevating the historically lowbrow medium. Though classically trained, with an MFA from the University of Tennessee, Brandon has airbrushed his way across the country for years, bringing joy to boardwalks, Bat Mitzvahs, and birthdays alike while also creating thoughtful, complex pieces for galleries and museums.

“I love the airbrush for its unique qualities, allowing the painter to have a distance from the surface without physically touching it. It’s air pressure that separates the painter from the surface. Airbrush has a connotation with being a lower form of painting in comparison to oil paintings, but in the last few years airbrushing has become more respected as a medium in gallery spaces..”

Each of the large pieces, like movie theatre cardboard cutouts, offers a different cozy scene—a baby crawls on a beach, a woman knits on a couch, another woman sits in a cozy backyard chair, potting plants into halved basketballs. Looking closer, though, the vibrant colors belie a strangeness. The backgrounds of these lovely scenes are disorienting—bright, majestic, and completely surreal.

“It’s like they are inside, but the backgrounds are magical and outdoors,” Cora observed.

You can learn much from talking to artists

It was exciting for both of us to discuss the artwork with the actual artist. Parents should take advantage of any opportunity to meet artists, whether through artist’s talks or opening nights. 

Brandon explained that the inspiration for these works was the idea of home: stylized memories of his loved ones in delight or repose, transported from one cozy living room to another.

I asked Cora if she had any questions for Brandon. She peered at each piece and then asked, rather insightfully, “Why are there no faces?”

Brandon answered, “There are no descriptive faces on my figures because I hope for the viewer to be able to place themselves in the artwork and identify even more with what they are seeing.”

Wa na wari gallery visit

The co-reviewer takes her time taking in an image by Nigerian artist and photojournalist Chris Iduma. Photo by Elizabeth Hunter.

Upstairs Dream Time

Next, we climbed the charmingly creaky staircase to explore the three bedrooms converted into galleries.

A jaunty tune pulls us into the first room, featuring an installation called “This isn’t getting laid,” by Seattle artist DK. A pile of bricks sits in the corner; the same brick is collaged onto paintings; a digital brick rotates on a video screen. We laughed out loud at a single brick standing upright in front of a full-length mirror. 

Cora’s favorite exhibition, “She’s me,” by mixed-media artist Marin Burnett, features sumptuous images of Black families against dreamy, magical backgrounds. Like Brandon’s “Down Time” pieces, the subjects in Marin’s works are slightly elevated off the canvas.

“Everything around her is a dream,” Cora said, peering closely at a little girl surrounded by fireflies, transfixed by the jars and nets full of glowing bugs.

Cora puzzled in the last gallery, staring at portraits by Nigerian artist and photojournalist Chris Iduma. On our second visit, we understood the distorted perspective to be compositions of several people, carefully rendered to appear like one person. The results are disquieting but absorbing.

Plan Your Visit

Wa Na Wari is a space for people who identify as Black, African-American, or from the African diaspora, and most of their programming will reflect that mission. Visitors should review Wa Na Wari’s community guidelines and behave accordingly, so plan to have a thoughtful chat with your child ahead of your visit.

Wa Na Wari is bustling!

Each of the three artists featured upstairs will be giving artist talks. Virtual artist talks are on Wa Na Wari’s Facebook/YouTube channel.

  • DK is speaking at Wa Na Wari on Saturday, March 23 at 1 p.m.
  • Marin Burnett is giving a virtual talk on Thursday, April 18 at 12 p.m.
  • Christopher Iduma is giving a virtual talk on Thursday, March 7 at 12 p.m.

Wa Na Wari is open Tuesday through Friday from 4 p.m. to 8 p.m. and 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. on weekends. There is no cost to enter, street parking is two hours free, and the area is served by several nearby buses. There are numerous restaurants and shops within walking distance. Cora and I discussed the art over dinner at one of the area’s numerous delicious Ethiopian restaurants.  

Wa Na Wari often hosts older and vulnerable adults, so masks are highly encouraged.

Read more mother-daughter reviews:

Visiting the Calder Exhibit at Seattle Art Museum with Kids

Mother-daughter review: Raúl de Nieves at the Henry

 

 

 

 

About the Author

Cheryl Murfin

Cheryl Murfin is managing editor at Seattle's Child. She is also a certified doula, lactation educator for NestingInstinctsSeattle.com and a certified AWA writing workshop facilitator at Compasswriters.com.