Meet Irene Whalen, the Owner of Zawadi on U Street Main Street

We sat down with Irene Whalen, the owner of Zawadi to learn more about her shop, her passion for supporting the African art community, and why she chose to open her business on U Street.

Photo Credit: Washington Post

Tell us about Zawadi and what makes it special.

We sell African and African diaspora traditional and contemporary art.  We sell the things that are expected like jewelry and clothing but we also try to introduce our customers to little known cultural items like traditional textiles and traditional women’s adornments like veil weights or boxes designed to hold treasures.  We open our doors to African American and diaspora artists to give our customers a broader exposure to what’s going on in the art world.  Some of our pieces are pretty eclectic but they pique curiosity that leads to great conversations.  We try to provide a peaceful experience for our customers so that they know they can withdraw for a time from the stresses and anxiety of D.C. and explore at ease.  

How did you come to be a business owner in DC?

Becoming a business owner was my third career. I initially thought I would be a teacher, and did that for a few years, then a development worker in Africa and did that for ten years, living in East, West and Southern Africa . It was during this time  that I found my love of African art and crafts was my road to personal satisfaction.  In each country I explored the shops and galleries and purchased gifts for friends and family.  In 1992, I returned to my old stomping grounds of D.C. and opened Zawadi on U Street. I had attended the University of Maryland in College Park and D.C. was the backyard of culture and happenings.  I also  knew the history of  U Street as the cultural and economic center of Black life.  After looking around the district, it seemed the perfect place to start Zawadi, which means gift in Kiswahili. I am one of the oldest, if not the oldest business on the fifteen hundred block of U Street and in that period have seen many changes.

I’ve continued to travel to Africa to make sure I stay in touch with the evolution of the artistic community there.  Though I sell some traditional art, I don’t want to be static.  On each visit to Africa, I see something new or something reimagined based on traditional art.  It has and continues to be an amazing journey for me. I’ve met so many artists and artisans and feel that my business has helped to enhance the life of multiple women artists through the years.  My initial goal in working in development was to promote the economic development of African women and it is ironic that in my pursuit of my passion for art I’ve done this in a way that is tremendously meaningful to me.

What is something that people may not know about you?

I am a die hard tennis fan.  I am an ardent follower of the game and I adore Roger Federer and Serena and Venus Williams.  I was introduced to tennis in my twenties and it has been an important part of my life.  I think I have played on courts in all areas of the cities and have wonderful memories of those times.  Tennis is an international game so I played on courts in Ethiopia, Guinea and Zambia.  It was a great way of making friends and keeping fit.

I am happy that I still play and it is exciting to see new stars emerge though I doubt that there will ever be an era like the one we have just experienced with the Big Three of Federer, Nadal and Djovokic on the men’s side and Serena and Venus on the Women’s side.  There is no doubt that Federer is the GOAT.  I am looking forward to the Citi Open and find each year it attracts more of the big stars.

What is your favorite thing about the U Street community?

The people who live and work around U Street are a diverse group and on any given day I never know who will walk through my door.  It can be an Ambassador from one of the African Embassy, a professor of African studies, or a returned peace corps volunteer from East Africa who wants to know what’s behind the Swahili name of my business. Washington, D.C. is an international community with people who have lived all over the world plus a large population of African Americans who are linked to Africa by our heritage.  This makes for an eclectic and interested community and I love interacting with them.

I also give my community kudos for being tremendously supportive during the pandemic.  We were closed for the first year of the pandemic and turned to an online presence to keep us going.  We’ve returned and are beginning to see increased indoor traffic for which we are grateful.  We certainly need more and we do ask customers to let friends and visitors know we are here.

If you could tell all of the residents in your community one thing, what would it be?

Slow down and look up from your phone so you can experience something different. 

Visit Zawadi at 1524 U Street NW. They are open Wednesday through Sunday from 12PM-7PM (6PM on Sundays). You can also shop online at ZawadiArts.com!

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