It’s said that necessity is the mother of invention. It should be added that creativity, then, is invention’s sister. The need to express, the need to share, the need to turn the insides into the outsides and simultaneously light, burn and extinguish some ephemeral fire gives birth to creativity. A year in, and pandemic life has stifled so much. But it has also bared our deepest needs – connection chief among them – and forced us to find new ways to meet them, which is exactly what the team behind theTwelve has ambitiously endeavored to do.
Part creative hub, part gallery, part gathering center and part retail storefront, theTwelve as a physical space is one of the newest additions to the burgeoning Union Market residential and commercial district. As a concept, theTwelve is a year-long collaboration between a dozen members of D.C.’s creative workforce who, as 2020 wore on, realized doing nothing in the face of so many changes and challenges wasn’t an option.
“We were having conversations like, ‘What does it really mean for us all to be in this together, and what does interconnectedness really look like?’” says Amira El-Gawly, founder of workplace culture consulting agency Manifesta and plant shop St. Plant, and one of theTwelve.
Among the people who shared El-Gawly’s feelings was Lori Parkerson, who owned Redeem, a local store specializing in vintage and small and independent brands, for over a decade. During that time, she built relationships with many fellow creative industry workers, including the other members of the collective who were asking each other questions like those El-Gawly described.
When neighborhood developer Edens offered the opportunity to temporarily inhabit a commercial space, Parkerson knew they had to see what they could do with it. El-Gawly describes the whole project as an experiment for, and in many ways curated by, the broader community to “dream, create and provoke.”
“The hope is we don’t miss the moment from the pandemic where, as much pain and suffering as it caused and is still causing, it really gave us a moment of pause to reconnect to what’s important and why we’re here,” Parkerson says. “How do we achieve that in a marketplace space [where] people feel loved [and] connected to something greater than themselves?”
With 3,600 square feet to work with, the “experiment” and its experimenters are open for programming ideas and collaborations throughout the year. Already in the works are events like tea ceremonies, tai chi, healing rituals and nature-oriented workshops.
Members of theTwelve will host conversations with artists and writers, salon discussions, and community-building gatherings like plant and puzzle exchanges. Four to five art exhibitions will show in the dedicated gallery space.
When it comes to interactions in the physical space, Covid-era safety is, of course, top priority. But so is providing opportunities to connect in a disconnected world, the founders have stressed.
The first art exhibition to find a home in theTwelve’s gallery responds directly to this intention. In “Objective: Things That Are Real,” multimedia artist, storyteller and photographer Obiekwe “Obi” Okolo confronts what he describes as a collective ineptitude at recognizing the person in other people, while placing too much stock in (capital I) Ideas.
“We put a lot of trust in systems we don’t fully understand,” Okolo says. “You take that and pair it with last year’s assault on truth and facts, [and] I think there’s an overcorrection and liberality that says there is no foundational truth and ‘All that matters is my truth.’ I think there’s some merit to that, but that ends up putting us in a very dangerous, individualistic mindset and world.”
After a year of quarantine, isolation and “sitting around with his stuff,” Okolo realized, “There’s got to be something foundational, or at least foundationally orienting, that we can all gather around. The questions I asked myself at the beginning were, ‘Is there objective truth without an object? Is that possible?’”
At the core of it, we connect through telling each other stories and creating shared experiences. Tangible objects, rather than ideas, can be the conduit through which that happens.
Okolo simply began by asking people to bring in an object that meant something to them, and he recorded them describing their artifacts. For the exhibition, several objects are on display at any given time. They’re paired with QR codes visitors can scan to hear the stories Okolo has collected – stories strangers have so willingly opened up to share.
“It’s proven to be a wonderful, healing salve as far as introducing ourselves to strangers again,” he says, “and not through the filter of all the big ideas, but directly and intentionally in a way we can start from an equal playing field.”
Follow Okolo on Instagram @obi.stg. Visit www.manifesta.co and www.stplant.co for more on El-Gawly’s businesses, and follow on Instagram @manifestaco and @st.plant. Visit theTwelve on Wednesday through Saturday from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m.
Founding members of theTwelve include Okolo, El-Gawly, Parkerson, Talyah Alpern, Julian Barnes, Alison Beshai, Reggie Black, Ayana Zaire Cotton, Britnie Dates, M. Gert Doriot, Curry Hackett and Joilyn Jackson.
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