After 32 years on the historic U Street, the Pan-African store Zawadi is closing its brick-and-mortar location on Jan. 28. Throughout its years, the store became more than a business enterprise; it grew into a cultural sanctuary in the D.C. area.
“Zawadi stands as a testament to the enduring spirit of cultural celebration and community engagement in the heart of Washington, D.C.”, said owner and founder Irene Whalen.
Established in 1992 during a time when U Street was “a thriving hub for African American businesses and cultural expression,” Zawadi’s presence added to the vibrancy of the community. Since its founding, the store has provided authentic African art, clothing, and home goods directly from the continent.
However, Whalen emphasized that Zawadi went beyond business transactions; there was a consistent dialogue, fostering a space where visitors can not only purchase cultural artifacts, but also learn about the histories and meanings behind them.
As the cultural landscape of U Street shifted, Zawadi evolved to meet the needs of the changing demographics while staying true to its roots.
“By continuing to showcase authentic cultural products and facilitating cross-cultural dialogue, Zawadi not only retained its historical connection to U Street but also became a bridge between the neighborhood’s storied past and its evolving future,” said Whalen.
Zawadi’s expansion into the growing community included partnering with other Black entrepreneurs by hosting artists’ talks, shopping pop-ups, and fashion showcases; embracing social media and creating a digital website for the store; and engaging with anyone who entered through the establishment’s doors.
Marvin Sin, a colleague and friend of Whalen, described Zawadi as “a portal into our world.”
Sin held art exhibits at Zawadi of his leather craftsmanship and his wife’s jewelry over the past six years. He also worked with Whalen in the same circuit of African and African American cultural products and retailing.
Sin said through Whalen’s brilliance and collaborative spirit, Zawadi became a retail pipeline for seven African nations and maintained a direct connection with artists from the continent. He added that Whalen’s wealth of knowledge made Zawadi a mini museum.
Throughout the years, Whalen traveled to Africa and connected with artisans, craftspeople, and retailers. This involved participating in cultural events and networking with local communities. Through these direct interactions, Whalen said she forged personal connections, gaining insight into the stories behind each product and ensuring that the items she curated truly reflected the authenticity of their cultural origins.
“People think of these spaces as businesses, but they really are cultural institutions,” said Sin.
Sin’s remembrance of D.C. is a stark contrast to what he said it feels like today, especially on U Street. He lived in D.C. during the 80’s and 90’s, and explained “it was like a dreamscape.”
Several Black-owned art galleries decorated the capitol, Sin explained, and art openings, receptions, and lectures were the social scene of the city.
While Sin said he mourns the closing of Zawadi and other establishments, he celebrates the lasting impact the store has had on all its visitors.
“Zawadi is a physical manifestation of the culture and cultural expression, but the culture and the cultural expression still exists. It is a part of D.C. history and the lives of everybody who stepped in there. It’s in every home. It’s in any person walking the streets in Zawadi garments or jewelry. It’s everywhere,” Sin told The Informer.
While Zawadi will be officially closed Jan. 28, the business will maintain an online presence through a curated section of African art, clothing, and homegoods available on its website. The store’s last sale day will be Friday, Jan. 26, Saturday the shop will be closed, and on Sunday, Jan. 28, Zawadi will host an open house from noon to 4 p.m.
Whalen said she’s grateful to retire from her business on her own terms and is looking forward to spending more time with her grandchildren and supporting the next generation of Black entrepreneurs.
Whalen wants Zawadi’s physical space to be remembered as more than a store, but a cultural marketplace for discovery and connection.
“I hope people remember that when you stepped into Zawadi, it was a place of warmth and welcome, a community hub—a space where people came together to celebrate diversity, engage in meaningful conversations, and forge connections,” said Whalen.
For more information on Zawadi, 1524 U Street NW #1, visit: zawadiarts.com.
Source: Washington Informer