Last month art galleries and other venues around Charleston presented exhibitions honoring the Emanuel Nine. One show, The Holy City: Art of Love, Unity, and Resurrection, is still going strong. Located at 414 King St. (right next to Virginia’s on King) the space is the temporary home of the Passages Artists Collective, a group that seeks to find a permanent place for African-American art and artists on the peninsula.

“There are 34 galleries on the Peninsula,” says Cookie Washington, the exhibition’s curator. “Not one of them is African-American owned, or a 50-percent supported African-American gallery. This city deserves an African-American art gallery.”

While we’re talking a truck drives by, waving a Confederate flag. Washington smirks, saying that’s not the first Confederate flag she’s seen on King Street. She quickly smiles, though, adding that she’s seen plenty of cute dogs, too. Washington has stayed on her post at the art gallery since it opened at the end of May. She has seen visitors from all over the world, many of whom she claims “get it.”

The gallery’s guest book has close to 1,000 names. A couple of the names belong to a German pair, two people Washington recalls fondly. “They said, ‘We saw this gallery on the American television,'” she laughs. They spent the whole afternoon talking to Washington, even buying her lunch.

As Washington and I walk, a couple walks through the gallery, and they stop in front of her before leaving. “That was really moving,” says the woman, signing while speaking, for the benefit of her deaf husband. He signs to her, she asks Washington if she knew any of the Emanuel Nine. Washington nods, the woman explains to her husband and he nods sadly. They continue to chat, moving onto the topic of gun control and racism. In just a few minutes the gallery is serving its intended purpose — it has people communicating, asking questions, and continuing the conversation.

The Holy City exhibition features works from 43 African-American artists, with pieces ranging from paintings to multi-media works to sculptures to quilts. Washington encourages me to walk through the space: you start in the front left of the building and move through a couple rooms before ending on the front right where you’ll see a proclamation from Mayor Tecklenburg. 

It begins, “Whereas Torreah ‘Cookie’ Washington and the artists of Passages Artists Collective bringing unity and healing to the Holy City with this tribute exhibit …” Washington shows me photos in the gallery’s memory book, some featuring the mayor volunteering his time to help set things up before the gallery’s opening. The memory book ask guests to consider what it would mean for Charleston to truly be a “Holy City.” As Washington says, “We aren’t there yet.”

Holy City Art: Art of Love, Unity, and Resurrection started forming the day after the shooting at Mother Emanuel. People asked Washington what they should do and how they could help. “I knew we would have a tribute show, I didn’t know how, when, or where,” says Washington, who became the natural head of the art show initiative after curating an exhibit at Mother Emanuel the year before.

Washington told her artist friends, “Go in your studio and make art and keep making art.” Pieces began to flow in from near and far; after a while Washington had to put a cap on submissions, for fear she wouldn’t have a space to show everything. “There was an elderly quilting group from Jamaica, Queens who tracked us down,” says Washington. “They said, ‘We don’t know how to email,’ but they’d gotten one of their grandkids to help them.” 

After months and months of searching for a space, Washington says that she is eternally grateful to Brent Case and the Coldwell Baker International team, the owners of the building, who offered the space at no cost. The generosity doesn’t stop there, either. Virginia’s has catered several parties at the gallery, again, at no cost to Washington or the artists. 

You can help promote African American art in the Holy City as well. Passages Artists Collective is selling a catalogue of all of the exhibition’s work for $35. Learn more here. 

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