Art and community intersect in Southeast

The house at the top of the hill: The gallery, which founder Juanita Britton says sits "off the beaten path" in the historic Anacostia area, opened six years ago. Photo by Kate Musselwhite

The Anacostia Art Gallery and Boutique is hard to miss. Campaign signs line the green chain-link fence that encloses the front yard. Fire-engine-red front steps lead up to a shiny blue porch surrounded by a bright yellow railing. Decorative mirrors and carved wooden chairs lean against the front wall, on which brightly colored geometric shapes are painted. Abstract designs wind in purples, blues and greens around the porch columns, sprawling up and across the second-story facade. An “Open” sign hangs in the front door.

Situated in the D.C. neighborhood of Anacostia, at the top of a hill where Bruce Place intersects Fort Place Southeast the house-turned-gallery is flanked on one side by nondescript brick row houses, on the other by an empty grass lot. Some weekends, in the empty lot next door, a hand-made sign touting the “Rev. Moses Tabernacle Church Yard Sale” hangs in front of an array of clothes, furniture and other miscellaneous items — including, one Saturday afternoon, a toy Tweety Bird sitting in an overstuffed chair.

“You’d think that because it’s off the beaten path, you wouldn’t have customers,” Britton said. “And why would you put a gallery in a challenged neighborhood like that?”

The locale might be unexpected, but founder Juanita Britton said the house-turned-art gallery is beginning to serve as a new landmark of sorts, both for the ethnic and cultural art it showcases, and the Anacostia intersection at which it sits.

Though she said her decision to start the gallery six years ago was challenging, she opened her extensive personal collection of international art — as well as her home — to the public when she learned that the nearby Anacostia Community Museum couldn’t afford a shop of its own.

“Everything in the gallery is done by people of color from all over the world,” said the gallery’s curator and art enthusiast, Barry Blackman. “Wherever we are as people. … We showcase the things that make up the African diaspora.”

Blackman and Britton said its artifacts also add to the gallery’s historically significant surroundings.

Anacostia’s African American roots run back hundreds of years. In post-Civil War D.C., when many recently freed blacks were left homeless or living in slum-like conditions, the Freedman’s Bureau worked discreetly with Barry’s Farm in the 1860s to build housing and support education for blacks. This planted the seed for one of the oldest communities of blacks in the nation’s capital, according to a documentary based on 2010 census data. Complaints, by both black and white Anacostia residents, about a disparate flow of government services “east of the river” trace back to this time as well.

Almost a century later in the 1950s, the black population in the area, now known as historic Anacostia, sky rocketed because of several social, economic and political factors, and many blacks in the District moved into neighborhoods abandoned by wealthier blacks and whites who left for the city’s suburbs.

According to the 2000 census, the Anacostia Art Gallery’s zip code — population at the time nearly 50,000 — was 96.5 percent black or African American, and about 32 percent of the individuals there were living below the poverty level. The latter percentage had fallen to just over 27 percent in a 2008 study by CityData.com.

Recent growth and development in and around the history-rich Anacostia area have drawn more visitors to the area — and, in turn, the gallery — by way of walking and biking tours of the area’s historic landmarks, like the recently restored Frederick Douglass National Historic Site, Blackman said.

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Also fortuitous is the gallery’s proximity to the Anacostia Community Museum, a federally funded project of the Smithsonian.  Many of its visitors — who Blackman enthusiastically greets, asking what brought them — have just come from the exhibits down the street.  Both Blackman and Britton spoke of a certain “synergy” between the gallery and the nearby museum.

Though Blackman said the art gallery and its events do draw some neighborhood support, he added that art might not be a top priority for all of the neighborhood’s residents.

But the gallery seems to be a known fixture in the neighborhood, even if its visitors don’t always live there.

Before catching the Metrobus at the stop across the street, local residents Latarcha Massey and Eric Jones said they both knew of the art gallery but only from the outside.

“I keep meaning to drop in there, but I’ve never been,” Massey said, adding that she’s heard the owner has “a lot of nice stuff in there.”

Tomika Douglas, a first-time gallery visitor who lives in Clinton, Md., had also been meaning to drop by — for years. She remembered seeing Britton — sponge in hand — getting the front porch ready for business as she drove by on her way to and from work.

“I watched her over the years just buy different things, travel around the world … and then just leave it right here for the community,” said Douglas, who was visiting the gallery with her children. “You can be in the same community for years, and you don’t even know that you have treasure right here.”

The gallery’s eclectic mixture of handmade, international “treasure” includes wine bags from Madagascar, sculptures from Jamaica, candleholders from Ghana, tile art from Los Angeles and paintings from the District. A pair of bongos sits alongside a case displaying crystal figurines. Colorful tapestries and ceramic masks adorn the walls.

Nearly every inch of the gallery, from the front porch to the backyard, is filled with art, culture or creativity — right down to the colorfully decorated floor, and a light switch cover embellished with what looks like Egyptian drawings. Dangling from displays in the kitchen-turned-boutique are necklaces and bracelets made out of copper coils from old refrigerators by a group in Mali. Jewelry fashioned from old, repainted glass in Ghana and from beans in Peru, hangs near purses made from recycled candy wrappers.

Shelves are lined with books by or about icons like Martin Luther King Jr., President Barack Obama, Tupac Shakur, Nelson Mandela and B.B. King. The Story of the Negro League Baseball lies alongside The Adinkra Dictionary and a book about “50 Phenomenal Black Women Over 50.” Music plays softly in the background.

“It’s a little bit of everything,” Blackman said, of the gallery’s collection.

Outside the gallery’s walls, the beginnings of development and gentrification that are trickling into the Southeast D.C. neighborhood from across the Anacostia River are generating a great deal of debate and evoking mixed emotions.

Regardless, Britton’s passion for the image and potential of the historic Anacostia area — especially the kids living there — is evident in the various ways she’s contributed to the artistic and local community, within and beyond her gallery, for over a decade. She offers gallery tours and free art classes to low-income neighborhood children in attempts to “pique their interest in art and music and culture” — anything to keep them interested and dreaming big, she said. And her public relations and marketing firm helps small businesses build “better consumer and community relationships,” according to her website.

She said the more negative associations that may have been tied to the neighborhood in the past — “around crime, drugs, violence” — are somewhat dissipating over time.

She said: “Now people … when they say how to get up to that neighborhood, they say, ‘You know the big art gallery at the top of the hill? That’s where we live. We live over by the art gallery.’”

For more information on the Anacostia area, see some of the area’s community blogs: And Now, Anacostia, Barry Farm (Re)Mixed, River East Emerging Leaders.

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