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Watch: Zoë Dusanne and Elisheba Johnson

Two curators separated by decades turn homes into galleries to support artists.

by Editorial Staff / June 1, 2022

'Black Arts Legacies: Curators Creating Space,' directed by Tifa Tomb.

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It’s not easy to run a contemporary art gallery in Seattle. Especially when you’re a woman in the 1940s trying to persuade collectors to support a new wave of modern art, as was Zoë Dusanne (1884 - 1972). Or even in the 2000s, when you are fighting to sustain Black artists and communities in the face of rapid gentrification, as does Elisheba Johnson (b. 1981). The two are separated by several generations and many changes in the contemporary art landscape, but they are bound together in their shared approach to using the home as a site for creativity and community.

Dusanne was a curator and dealer who brought abstract expressionism to Seattle, championed Japanese American artists and was instrumental in gaining public appreciation for the Northwest School of modern artists. She did much of this work from the midcentury modern home she built on land that would eventually be cleared to make way for Interstate 5, near what is now exit 168A.

Person in black and white photo sitting on a couch with hands under chin
Zoë Dusanne in Seattle, 1961 (Courtesy of MOHAI, 1986.5.24097.1)

The 1949 home — which she commissioned emerging Seattle architects Bert Tucker, Robert Shields and Roland Terry to design — had a grand view of Lake Union, with large windows that allowed a flood of natural light to illuminate her vast, personal art collection. Dusanne regularly hosted visitors in her home and would eventually open the space to the public as the Zoë Dusanne Gallery.

She exhibited some of Seattle’s finest painters, including the emergent Mark Tobey, George Tsutakawa and John Matsudaira, and she was the first person to exhibit Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama in the U.S. She often loaned parts of her collection to the Seattle Art Museum and the Henry Art Gallery.

Art is an inquiry and curating is a thesis statement.
Elisheba Johnson

Almost 70 years later and just a few miles southeast of Dusanne’s former home, Elisheba Johnson launched the home gallery Wa Na Wari with Rachel Kessler, Jill Freidberg and Inye Wokoma in 2019. The Central District home was owned by Wokoma's grandfather and has been in his family for five generations.

Person on stairs in a colorful dress, a banner hanging above says: Wa Na Wari
Elisheba Johnson photographed on the porch of Wa Na Wari where she is curator (Meron Menghistab for Crosscut)

The gallery is a beautiful demonstration of the resiliency of art and community in the face of massive displacement in the neighborhood. The home was always a community space, Johnson says. “It was weird if the door was closed…. [People] knew if they came here they could meet somebody they knew, could talk to. So we kind of feel like we are continuing that.” Wa Na Wari hosts literary events, live music and enlightening experiences alongside an exhibition schedule that showcases Black artists from around the city and nation.

Dusanne’s history and Johnson’s ongoing work demonstrate that curating is more than simply collecting art into one room. Bringing people together around art is a key part of community building. A huge part of Dusanne’s legacy was lost when her home was cleared to make way for I-5 and surrounding developments in the name of city progress. But her life and work are kept alive in people like Johnson, who show us that the home is a site where Black community and art collide, where we can feel the resiliency of Black life.

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Editorial Staff