Zwadi Turns 23

So often as a community, we tend to focus on the new: new restaurants, new boutiques, new condo buildings. We identity this new growth as progress. The unfortunate effects of this attitude is that small businesses get trampled underfoot.

A few weeks ago we, we celebrated both Black History Month and ushered in March and the celebration of Women’s History Month. To truly recognize the value of both events and the importance of a lasting legacy, we sat down with Irene Zawadi of Zwadi to talk about the transitions the block has made in the 23 years she’s owned a store here.

Opening the store, in an era from different from our own – when the passage of civil rights was still fresh and racial tensions in the District remained on high, Irene opened Zawadi – an African Arts store dedicated to celebrating and exposing African Arts to the local community. Having spent 10 years living in Africa and working as a Developmental Sociologist, Irene fell into the arts when she decided to pursue her passion. She traveled all over the continent but found herself drawn mostly to South Africa and Senegal. There she went to open markets, where Africans from all over came to trade their goods. Irene, herself, now makes a living educating Washingtonians on the artwork of the some of the very artist she met.

When Zawadi was opened in the 80’s, there was very pro-black underlining in the African American community. Today, some of that current has been lost. As a result, Irene often finds herself looking for new, engaging ways to draw in shoppers. Her annual Christmas Tree, which is adorned with artwork from both local Black and African artists, has been running since the store opened. Today, she continues that tradition but also invites artists to speak at the store, hold temporary galleries there and even, take over the store with their interior aspirations as Juunke Nmami did most recently. Through all the 23 years that Irene, has been in business Irene has learned that: “To run a business and to create is very difficult.” Hence, why she allows artists to rearrange the shop with their own style.

Thanks to the 15andU project and a grant from the city, Irene has started to see an upturn in business. A new sign outside and pushes on social media, had helped keep this District relic relevant and integral to the legacy of the block.

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