Feeling the love and healing in Seattle’s new WOW Gallery

I never know when I will have to steady myself and lift my spirits after feeling no love as a Black woman. It might be a random Monday, and it seems all of social media is debating whether I deserve respect or if I should be harassed. It all depends on if I meet a stranger’s “no-bonnets-allowed” standards. On Tuesday, perhaps someone has enjoyed my work but inconveniently not credited me again, requiring me to spend precious energy campaigning to keep my name “on the record.” Now comes Wednesday, and I am likely watching cartoons with my daughter while wondering if all the animators forgot that Black girls exist. Then comes Thursday where I might stumble upon some casual violence in a dating app where men of all hues announce to me “I don’t usually date Black women, but you…” Sigh.

This world does not readily provide conditions that affirm Black women’s humanity. So, we must be intentional about healing and loving ourselves first and best. So, on Friday, June 18, I was elated to bask in a full-strength celebration of Black women at the new Women of Wonder Gallery (W.O.W.) in Seattle’s Pacific Place Mall.

Entrance to the WOW Gallery in Seattle. Photo courtesy of Veronica Very

Thanks to the talented artist hands of Hiawatha D. and the vision and commitment of his wife Veronica Very, a unique and transformative space now exists in the heart of downtown Seattle. The WOW Gallery is an 11,000 square foot healing space that houses Hiawatha’s incredible collection of paintings honoring Black women alongside Veronica’s powerful words from her work as the founder of Wonder of Women International.

Hiawatha D.’s paintings are inspired by Black people powerfully transcending historical, societal, racial and economic challenges in America and around the world. Veronica’s work centers on the power of storytelling and art to help heal and liberate Black women from emotional pain and trauma. As the popular lyrics go, they are each a movement by themselves, but they are a force when they are together. They team up to co-parent, mentor emerging artists and entrepreneurs, and volunteer their time and talents in the community locally, nationally, and internationally.

Veronica and Hiawatha embracing inside the WOW Gallery space
Veronica and Hiawatha embracing inside the WOW Gallery space
Photo courtesy of Veronica Very

Since society is not designed to support Black people’s well-being, for us to even aspire to be truly well as beings, it is necessary for some part of our lives to be a radical Black protest. It just is. Hiawatha and Veronica have boldly chosen love as theirs. And thank the ancestors that they did, because they are exceptionally good at loving each other and all of us.

Through the events of the opening weekend, I came to know the story of the gallery and the chapter it adds to Veronica & Hiawatha’s radical Black love story. The WOW Gallery opening weekend coincided not only with Juneteenth, but also with the couple’s third wedding anniversary. It is a stunning milestone in a story that began in 2016 when Veronica posed the simple question to Hiawatha “Have you ever considered painting a collection of Black women?” He agreed to this journey with her, and the result is a gift to us all — a stunning collection of portraits honoring iconic Black women filling the spaces of what used to be a Victoria Secret store. To their surprise and delight, the size of the old Victoria Secret displays turned out to be the perfect size to house the paintings.

The collection includes the majesty of ancestors like Maya Angelou and Ida B. Wells alongside the fire of today’s icons like Nikole Hannah-Jones and Serena Williams all painted in Hiawatha’s signature style of abstract movement and bold color. He had originally set out to paint 15 images, now there are 56 of these vibrant celebrations of Black women in the exhibit. The gallery also houses his Black Love Series and will include a rotating exhibit featuring Black women artists.

My impression upon walking into the WOW Gallery for the opening White Party, was total awe. I could feel the intentionality of honor and protection as soon as the doors opened. The feeling continued as I explored of the expansive rooms, each carrying its own theme: Love, Light, Liberation, and Legacy. On the walls, the mantra “Dear Sista, I see you” repeats. My gratitude for what Veronica & Hiawatha have created here only grew as the evening continued with their launch story, words of inspiration from Susan L. Taylor, and the ribbon-cutting with Mayor Jenny Durkan.

They ended the celebration with the surprise unveiling of the latest icon to be installed in the exhibit — Trish Millines-Dziko, co-founder and Executive Director of the Technology Access Foundation. As the curtain opened on her portrait, Trish swelled with emotion and we were blessed to witness a Black woman receive her flowers while she is here. That never gets old.

Trish Millines-Dziko shares a few words after a surprise unveiling of her portrait.

The next day, on the morning of Juneteenth, was the Dear Sista Day Retreat. In this event, Veronica led us through hours of revealing and affirming experiences inside the Legacy Room of the WOW Gallery. All the women attending received her push to ask for what we need and honor our vision. Somehow, Veronica manages to embody the spark and warmth of your best girlfriend, the confident dazzle of your favorite auntie, and the gravity of your elders all at once. She spoke permission for us to let tears flow should they come, and my body fell into the hug of those words and I silently wept for what felt like several hours straight. It may as well have been a spiritual revival given all the call and response happening during the guest speakers and panels. It was overwhelming to juggle all the feelings that stirred in me in the gallery that day.

And just when I had gathered myself enough to head home to get dolled up for the evening’s final African Night festivities, I got a reminder of the first time I was this deeply immersed in a space designed specifically for Black women. I met Shaconna Haley, an adjunct professor at Spelman College, my beloved alma mater, who had traveled from Georgia to be there. When she told me that she taught African Diaspora & the World — a course we affectionately short-hand as ADW — I was rocked. ADW gave me my first deep understanding of my global community as a Black person. It equipped me with the names of great thinkers and writers who examined and documented the impact of misogynoir. To have this reminder of the place that poured into my consciousness and well-being as an 18-year-old girl while I was now standing in the WOW Gallery receiving unreserved love and celebration broke the last floodgate. Professor Haley held me while I cried into her shoulder. Everything about the moment — her, the space, the vibe — felt like safety and love.

Veronica Very leading the Dear Sista Day Retreat

That night we danced. The vibrant colors of the guests’ outfits at the closing party matched the energy of the iconic women on the walls. Taking it all in — the inaugural healing room exhibit by Jaime Escarpeta, the DJ, the catering, the art, the joy! — I stood there imagining what the future holds for the WOW Gallery. Now that it is here, it is easy for me to picture it as a destination of healing for Black women. I see many other organizations hosting celebrations, meetings, trainings, and courageous conversations that elevate cultural understanding in this space. I can imagine this experience existing in many other cities around the world. I am all in on the vision that Veronica & Hiawatha have for us. I deeply thank them for that vision, for their love, and for this healing space that I can now call to mind on any day of the week when I need to be lifted higher.

Kiesha Garrison, Hiawatha D. and Veronica Very at the WOW Gallery opening weekend.

Join the love and healing by supporting the WOW Gallery at 600 Pine St, in Seattle WA. Follow them on Facebook @wowgalleryexp and on Instagram @wonderofwomen.

Kiesha is a host, event emcee & speaker. Her work focuses on personal development, how we can be better to ourselves and others & issues affecting Black women.