When I walked into Wa Na Wari in Seattle one relentlessly rainy afternoon, my body flushed with the immediate warmth of refuge. Wa Na Wari, which means “Our Home” in Kalabari, a Nigerian Ijo language and kingdom, resides in a residential space in the Central District, Seattle’s historically Black neighborhood. Entering Wa Na Wari for the first time in over a year, I found myself immediately longing for its distinctive details that I knew would be impossible: the smell of coffee brewing in the kitchen, waiting to be poured into mugs that could accompany you through the space; the creaking footsteps of others moving through the house; the green rotary phone that told oral histories about the neighborhood in your ear as if you are already a friend.
None of those were possible with all of the COVID-19 restrictions in place, but the living room still radiated, its eggshell-painted walls lined with Shoccara Marcus’s five large photographs. Part of the Atlanta-based artist and dancer’s 2014 series “Choreographing My Past,” the works capture Marcus’s experiences returning to live with her family in her childhood home after learning of her father’s cancer diagnosis—an experience the artist described in her statement as realizing her family still saw her as “the girl I once was rather than the woman I had become.” Despite being created years ago, the subject struck me as particularly resonant during the pandemic, when many young adults found themselves moving back home.
When she began the series, Marcus expected to find inspiration anywhere but home. But, when she noticed her father asleep on the couch one evening, she was compelled to set up her tripod. A lifelong dancer, she also found herself responding with physical movements. “I’m yelling inside: I want to get out. And so, I got on the couch and tried to climb. I even fell a couple of times,” Marcus explained. When she realized her father remained asleep, oblivious to her, she had an epiphany. “There’s so much happening between us. We’re physically in the same space but mentally in different worlds.” The resulting image, Different Existence, duet (2014), captures a wood-paneled room packed with furniture, the coffee table strewn with the detritus of a long day, and Marcus’s father enveloped in a deep, leather chair. In the right half of the image, the artist seemingly binds her body to a door frame, stranded and straining, but holding on.
Afterwards, Marcus kept her camera close when she was home, investigating the relationships that transpired across not only rooms but generations. Two of the works at Wa Na Wari feature her young nieces, including Beyond Stretched, trio (2014), which shows two girls on a sprawling, rosy-hued bed, one gazing beyond the frame while the other lounges on her back, engrossed by a tablet. Meanwhile, Marcus stretches her arms between two window frames situated behind her nieces, her body balanced lightly on the edge of the headboard. When I ask what the image means for her now, years after it was taken, the emotional affect of the work is still palatable. “It stings because I feel like I’m the aunt, I’ve got to protect you,” she says. “And now, with so many of our Black boys are being shot in broad daylight, it makes me want to say, ‘There’s so much I have to tell you about how to live in this cruel world.’”
Marcus’s photographs surface the complex and tangible nuances of her relationships on their own, but seeing them inside the Wa Na Wari home heightened their affect. Elisheba Johnson, the exhibition’s curator and co-founder of Wa Na Wari says, “Once you see the work in our house, I think it punctuates our connectedness between art and living space.” With these works on view through July, there is hope that the next time I see them, it can be among others, in a room where the intimacies on the walls are starting to return to our lives in full.
Shoccara Marcus: Choreographing My Past
Wa Na Wari, Seattle, WA
March 19, 2021–July 18, 2021
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