In the window, baskets by the Yoruba people of Nigeria mingled with Kuba textiles by the Bakuba people of the Congo and with cooking stools from Guinea. They sat next to a poster of South African freedom fighter Steve Biko, candleholders, and koras. Aside from the sign taped to the door”Only 7 Days Left”it was business as usual two Fridays ago at Vernard Gray’s Miya Gallery, the oldest black-culture shop in the downtown area.
“I like your fancy shoes,” Gray called after a woman wearing animal-print heels, as she made her way out the door. Two young women came in to inquire about headwraps, and one stopped to buy cowrie-shell earrings. An older woman paused to look at some mudcloth. “How much is this?” she asked. “A yard by a yard and a half,” Gray answered, unfurling a piece of the handmade African fabric.
By working with contractors willing to rent him affordablebut temporaryspace in buildings marked for development, Gray managed to remain downtown for decades. His gallery occupied several locations since its opening in 1976, settling in its final home629 E St. NWin 1995. But this time, displaced along with other arts organizations to make way for a massive residential and office complex (“Do Go Quietly,” 6/1), Miya closed indefinitely on July 27.
“The reality of progress is that, in this society, things from older traditions are not held in high esteemwith the exception of the things deemed important by the ruling class,” Gray says. “In the new downtown, it’s guaranteed you’ll have Shakespeare, but it’s not guaranteed that you’ll have things African celebrated by Africans, because the people who have economic means have influence.”
Over the years, Miya exhibited the work of more than 200 artists and craftspeople. But it was more than just a traditional art gallery; it was a cultural center. “You can go into a lot of white shops where black art is sold as decorative items, [but Miya] showed that what was said to be primitive was high art, original artart for cultural celebration,” says artist Akili Ron Anderson. “[Gray] would bring out the utility of African-American culture and iconography by sharing the stories that went with the fabric and jewelry and telling what [they] meant.”
“[Miya has] been the gathering place for ideasfor the launching of businesses, for networking, and for care,” says Diane White, co-founder of the New York-based Afrocentric-lifestyle store Blackberry. “You could go into Vernard’s place and sit with him, and he’d always be available to listen.”
Gray’s early hair-braiding workshops spurred people such as Cornrows and Co. founder Pam Ferrell to open their own natural-hair-care salons. “Miya Gallery has really inspired the industry of braiding,” Ferrell says, “not as cosmetology, but as a cultural tradition to be preserved.”
On July 7, about 200 of Gray’s friends and family members gathered at the University of the District of Columbia to celebrate Miya’s 25th anniversary and Gray’s 60th birthday. After a traditional African libation, attendees offered reminiscences, and a representative from D.C. Councilmember Kevin Chavous’ office presented Gray with a proclamation honoring his “sound approach to foundation-building for all people.”
But besides making a symbolic gesture, friends of the gallery suggest, the city could have done more.
“After something has settled and become so important and it’s so rare, the government and people should be a groundswell of support to say we’re not going to let this happen,” Anderson says. “But they have not come forward to say this entity cannot leave us.”
“After [us], there aren’t any more black organizations in the area,” says Assane Konte, co-founder and artistic director of the KanKouran West African Dance Company. KanKouran, which also had to vacate its downtown location because of development, has been a fixture with Miya in the four-block radius around 7th and E Streets for the past 15 years.
“It’s kind of hard in Washington,” Konte continues, “because it seems the nation’s capital is more about money-making.” Ayesha Morris