The Seattle Black Spatial Histories Institute debuted its new exhibition Honored to Tell Saturday night to a full house at Wa Na Wari in Seattle’s Central District. Co-directed by Zola Mumford and Jill Freidberg, this moving exhibition presented a variety of artwork by the Institute’s first graduating cohort. Being surrounded by this art and the community that helped bring it to life was an impressive reminder of the importance of communal storytelling and our role within it.
This was my first time at Wa Na Wari and I was immediately struck by its unique and inviting atmosphere. Sited in a fifth-generation, Black-owned home, the space feels familiar, welcoming, and lived in. Wa Na Wari has its own commanding presence, possessing you of its history as soon as you walk through the door. This is extremely conducive to the work that the Seattle Black Spatial Histories Institute strives to do through its community story training program, which I saw wonderfully on display last night. Though the house quickly filled up with eager guests, making it difficult to explore the full extent of this space, it added to the overall impression of Wa Na Wari—that people had been here before, that we were following in their footsteps, that people would someday follow in ours.
In that way, Honored to Tell is an incredibly grounding experience. Brenetta Ward’s installation, “Story Scrolls: Unraveled Narratives,” emphasizes this sentiment by bringing materiality to her quilted scrolls. She created thirteen scrolls in total for the thirteen narrators featured, each unique, yet all contributing to a collective history and legacy. I loved the range of colors, patterns, and personalities that I saw displayed in these scrolls. By incorporating charms, text, and different fabrics, I felt them without needing to physically touch them; they gave texture to the narrators’ lives, stitching together pieces of thread like chapters in a book and revealing the intertwining grooves through which meaning is made. I loved spending time with these quilts because it felt like getting to know someone new. This is all the more impressive on Ward’s part, as she explained in her artist talk that she typically only makes story scrolls for people with whom she is personally close. Thus, the care with which she handles thirteen strangers’s lives is a testament to the respect we should all pay each other and the history we share.
Traveling up the creaky stairs of the Wa Na Wari house, familiar scents drew me toward Ariel Mack Paine’s installation, “Solo’s Fades and Grooming.” Stepping into this room, I was immediately transported into a top-shelf bedroom barbershop, as Paine affectionately calls it, complete with a vintage barber chair, bright overhead lights, hairstyle posters lining the walls, and a TV playing episodes of “Seattle’s Central District Blacklight on Barbers & Beauticians.” I felt immediately at ease in this space, reminded of visits with my brother to the barbershop and hours spent getting my hair braided by skilled and sensitive hands in neighbors’s living rooms. I loved the attention to detail here: the fresh, leathery aroma emanating from the walls immediately grounded me in the shared memory of this space. Though it is often overlooked or undervalued, scents play a particularly important role in the function of memory, so I appreciate that Paine allowed me and others like me to become fully immersed in our own memories and what it means to be a part of a collective memory. This was so clearly a labor of love as an ode to Paine’s barber sensei, Dorian “solo doe” Dinish, that it was hard not to get emotional over those who play such a fundamental role in the shaping of the Black community.
Moving across the hallway, the energy became more still and quiet but just as commanding as I stepped into “Making.wavs Zine and Immersive Reading Room.” This was a collaborative project featuring oral history interviews recorded and edited by Ricky Reyes and Sierra Parsons, which were then adapted into the zine “making.wavs,” designed and created by Eboni Wyatt. Their installation made an intimate use of the space, with low, warm lighting and armchairs seated next to side tables and landline telephones. Images and quotes from the zine plastered the walls, showing the contours of the room and the many stories it evinced. Taking a seat in the comfortable armchair and picking up the phone, I was surprised to hear recordings of the actual interviews playing through the speakers. As I settled in and looked out the window, I simply felt like I was having a pleasant phone call with an old friend or relative, eager to hear from them. I found this format incredibly thoughtful and once again felt grounded by the entire experience. Art often feels like something that is only to be looked at and never touched, but this installation encouraged me to participate in their work. In the front of the room alongside copies of the zine, they even had interactive writing prompts for guests to share their own memories of the waterfront or give their appreciation to the narrators.
Wyatt’s zine itself was also a very moving piece of art. The theme of water connects all these interviews together, which is why each section features a characteristic of the element: flowing, spirit, resistance, legacy. There is also a coastal line extending across the pages, behind images and quotes, which doubly signifies the spirit of the late Garry Owens “whose spirit is the thread throughout.” The cover is bound by images of frothy waves, as well as bookended by a historic map of the Duwamish Waterway Seattle Harbor. All together, this zine does a wonderful job tying individual stories into a larger narrative that tells the history of Black and Indigenous life in Seattle.
Finally, heading back toward the stairs, there is one more screening room to explore: Akoiya Harris and Brea Wilson’s film “Our Story Our Dance.” Harris, a movement-based artist and choreographer, collected five oral histories from Black Seattle dancers, which she then used as inspiration for her own dance. This work was then shot and edited by Wilson and turned into the film on display at Wa Na Wari. Unfortunately, due to the limited number of headsets, I was unable to fully enjoy this film. Yet, watching briefly with subtitles, I did find Wilson’s footage incredibly beautiful and captivating. I only wish I had gotten more time with this piece, and I plan on revisiting it in the future.
Fortunately, I was able to see an excerpt of Harris’s choreography live, titled “Our Constellations.” Akoiya Harris and Nia-Amina Minor performed this dance to a composition of oral histories by Esther Mumford (in 1975) and herself. They graciously and gracefully danced their way around the living room of Wa Na Wari as guests hugged the walls to make room. While I admittedly don’t know much about dance, I was incredibly moved by their performance. It was as though these histories were their fuel, seizing them of lives lived and the legacy of which they are now a part. While the dance reminded me most of ballet in style, I loved their incorporation of familiar Black movements and footwork. These were often intentionally synced with the dialogue of the music. Together, Minor and Harris flowed like water and complemented each other wonderfully, making space for each other and working together. Their outfits were also coordinated, incorporating the same colors of green, blue, and brown into different styles. I feel honored that I got to witness this performance live.
In general, I feel honored that I got to be a part of this entire experience at Wa Na Wari by the Seattle Black Spatial Histories Institute. Unfortunately, I recognize not everybody will appreciate this experience for what it is worth, as I overheard someone loudly say they were only there “to check off a box” and did not actually want to be there. This was a regretful reminder that there will always be individuals who will not treat Black and Indigenous histories with the respect they deserve, but this does not mean that the work is any less valuable. So, while I encourage anybody with the time and energy to go see this exhibit, I want to remind guests to treat this house like a home—full of life, love, and endless spirit.
Honored to Tell Wa Na Wari, 911 24th Ave, Seattle, WA 98122. November 4, 2023-January 20, 2024. Fridays 5pm-8pm, Saturdays and Sundays 11am-5pm. Free event.
More info: https://www.wanawari.org/sbshi_show