For more than a month, in what has been the continuation of efforts to highlight Anacostia’s rich history and culture, an extensive collection of photos, paintings and other art pieces about the Southeast neighborhood have had a home at the DC Commission on the Arts & Humanities (CAH) in Southeast.
When the “Anacostia Unmapped 2.0” exhibit launched in early August, the CAH ground gallery became a maze of historically and politically enriching artwork, poetry and video, all of which had been inspired by the 2016 award-winning radio docuseries that featured the voices and stories of longtime Anacostia residents.
“The artists used stories from the radio documentary to create visual work that supported the narratives,” said Karen Baker, curator of “Anacostia Unmapped 2.0.” “In curating, I had to focus on the experience of the person walking through [the exhibit] and make sure they felt the energy and spirit in there.”
Baker received a curatorial grant that manifested in the creation of “Anacostia Unmapped 2.0.” She said that she organized the exhibit so that visitors, upon entering CAH, could walk down a set of steps in the ground gallery and examine artwork that chronicled Anacostia’s history, including that featuring Frederick Douglass accompanied by a book about Anacostia in the 19th century.
Baker said CAH representatives reacted positively to the set design and outpouring of support in the weeks since the Aug. 6 launch, telling her that “Anacostia Unmapped 2.0” has set a foundation for art that connects communities and creates social impact.
She said D.C. Child and Family Services employees have perused the exhibit as motivation in their work with local youth.
“The artists did an amazing job,” Baker said. “We extended the view, giving a historical and current view of Anacostia. We wanted to show Anacostia in the most amazing, beautiful way possible, to have the residents feel celebrated and respected for the fact they’ve been a community and village.”
The Exhibit at a Glance
“Anacostia Unmapped 2.0” features the work of more than a dozen mixed media and multimedia artists, including Kymone Freeman, V. Kuroji Patrick, Katie Davis, John Johnson, Melanie Douglass and Anieken Udofia.
Artwork includes the likeness of the “Godfather of Go-Go” Chuck Brown, a young person sitting along Maple View Place in Southeast, and a rendition of Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X, for whom two streets in Southeast are named, shaking hands.
A long poem by John Johnson named “My Man DC,” erected on one of the back walls in the ground gallery, personifies D.C.’s gentrification with words and local cultural references. Photos from the Black L.U.V. festival, Anacostia River cleanup, the Goodman League at Barry Farms, and a Memorial Weekend community meeting at the Alexander Mosby Garden in Southeast, a gathering space on the block known as the modern-day Black Wall Street named for the late owner of clothing and apparel store District Culture, also lined the walls toward the end of the “Anacostia Unmapped 2.0” exhibit.
On the afternoon of Sept. 9, CAH visitors can attend art workshops led by Patrick, Anacostia Watershed Society and Storytelling with Saris. Plans have also been in the works for a yet-to-be-named extension of the Anacostia Unmapped series that takes the multimedia pieces into Anacostia High School in Southeast.
“This exhibit opens up a lot of narratives about Anacostia, because Anacostia has been known as the black sheep of D.C. neighborhoods,” Patrick, the prolific illustrator behind the newly released visual representation of Freeman and Katie Davis’ award-winning “The Lion and the Map” radio piece, said as he alluded to a persistent, dominant narrative about Anacostia as an epicenter of violence and poverty.
Telling the Lion’s Story
Throughout the month of August, visitors at the CAH ground gallery have watched Patrick’s short film, sitting between the “My Man DC” poem and Dr. King/Malcolm X painting, sometimes within earshot of the illustrator eager to hear reactions, good, bad and others in between.
“The Lion and the Map,” Freeman’s less-than-five-minute reflection about the longtime erasure of African-American culture, and pilot episode of what would become the “Anacostia Unmapped” radio docuseries, drew inspiration from a famous Chinua Achebe quote about the power of storytelling for marginalized groups.
With the assistance of Katie Davis, Freeman created the 2015 radio piece in response to the circulation of a map that showed rental values across the D.C. metropolitan region in areas other than Wards 7 and 8. Patrick, also a children’s book illustrator, said that upon hearing “The Lion and the Map” in January, long before he would be commissioned to complete the short film, he thought about the images that could complement Freeman’s words.
“There’s a necessity for this to come together to give tremendous voice to other people,” Patrick said. “I put a storyboard together the way I would present it. It mirrored Kymone and Karen [Baker]’s thoughts. I was hearing the piece and thinking about the things that could make the words be seen even more. Then I go to the noisiest place to sketch and flipbook it to see if I can point out the key parts of the audio I’m listening to.”
For Freeman, the Anacostia Unmapped series, and other projects he conducts as co-founder and program director of We Act Radio in Southeast, count as part of an attempt to show the power of speaking up against the establishment, who he contends has created a narrative around development that hides the suffering of D.C.’s longest residing and poorest residents, while typecasting them as those unworthy of respect.
“We have to prove that we exist, that this isn’t a wasteland full of crime,” Freeman said, stressing that he’s not against development, rather the displacement of African-American residents. “There are families and businesses flourishing here.”
As a show of solidarity with entities who’ve expressed a commitment to balancing obligations to both sides, Freeman approached the Menkiti Group, a Northeast-based development firm, as a partner.
“You can’t come up here and rewrite history,” Freeman said. “‘Anacostia Unmapped’ is about making as much noise as possible. They would tell us the city is benefiting everyone and that’s not true. When writing your story, don’t let someone else hold the pen. It’s incumbent upon us to curate the stories that haven’t been told.”
For artists involved in “Anacostia Unmapped 2.0,” like Kenadi Johnson, the recent success of this exhibit instills hope about the future of D.C.’s artist community, particularly those living in communities east of the Anacostia River and under the constant threat of displacement.
Johnson, the 21-year-old artist behind the Frederick Douglass painting at the start of the exhibit, represents a demographic that constitutes the largest proportion of Anacostia residents. She said her use of various colors around Douglass’ likeness evokes emotion out of those who look at her painting.
She said this strategy often translates into her other work.
“For some people who aren’t into the arts, there are certain abstract images they can relate to,” Johnson said as she explained how her abstract art serves as an extension of her life and family. “In some areas, you see what it is, but you don’t know.”
Her painting that shows the Black abolitionist surrounded by leaves, a light blue background and a dozen Black men and women.
“You see colors and texture, but you don’t see an object, just like you don’t see pieces of what’s commented on in the African-American community,” Johnson said. “Normally, when I paint, I like to connect with what I’m painting. I have a big connection with Anacostia because I have brothers and sisters from there.”