The house was the thing. As much as it is a welcoming space for the Black community to present and make art in the city and region at large, it's also a defiant statement: we're still here. But now just after their first anniversary, the pandemic has forced the Wa Na Wari founders to rethink how to maintain their mission that hinged on their physical space while also adapting to the new restrictions set in place by the government.
Though Elisheba Johnson, co-founder of Wa Na Wari, assures me that there's funding in place for the space to exist into 2021, they are working on adapting their upcoming shows and programming. "It's still quite a conundrum," she told me over the phone today. "If your whole mission is to be a center for Black folks in the region to have belongings in the arts, how do you pivot that online? So much of our stuff is in person and about that type of connection."
Like most clubs and music venues, Wa Na Wari has primarily turned to Zoom as a way to connect their community with their new programming. They've been hosting dance parties, DJ nights, yoga, and comedians like Seattle-raised Solomon Georgio on the platform, which Johnson says has brought out a lot of community support. But most interestingly, the founders are working with artists to translate their upcoming shows into something consumable in a Zoom format.
In The Before times, Wa Na Wari would invite three to four Black artists to display work—be it painting, performance, or video—inside the space for weeks at a time. But rather than just copy/paste their programming online, the space is actively thinking about how best to adapt the work these artists do to fit the context we're viewing them through.
Johnson pointed to an upcoming performance by Autumn Knight, a New York-based experimental performance artist that was slated to have a show at Wa Na Wari this month. She has been in communication with Johnson, retooling her show, Our Water is Melted Snow, into a thirty-minute interactive performance about Seattle and the experience of eating together through Zoom on May 22. Presented in collaboration with On the Boards, the event is sold out.
The idea gave me pause at first—interactive? How!? But the prospect of beaming art into people's bedrooms interests me. Perhaps this sort of online engagement could solve the perpetual problem facing galleries and other art spaces of getting people through the door; you can check out the city's art offerings without leaving your house.
Johnson says that though she's excited by the connections being made between Wa Na Wari and other Seattle cultural spaces as well as the outpouring of community support, she and the other founders are still taking it day by day, week by week.
"We're all in a collective grief, you know?" she said. "I just feel, whether or not people want to talk about it that way, that's what's happening. And art is the thing that heals us, so I think it's important for us to keep doing our work at this time."