Couple's Vision Brings Art, Expression to Newark's West Ward

(L to R): Emma Wilcox, Laura Bonas-Palmer, Pamela Daniels, Jeremy Johnson and Kaishon Way stand together during the opening night of an exhibit at "Akwaaba," an art gallery in Newark's West Ward.

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NEWARK, NJ - When Laura Bonas-Palmer and her husband bought 509-511 South Orange Ave. in 2016, she knew immediately knew what the ground floor would be used for: an art gallery.

Friday night was the opening reception for that gallery’s first art exhibit. And residents, passerby and those in the art community took notice. After all, many couldn’t even recall the last time they had seen another art gallery in the West Ward.

"It's all Downtown," Bonas-Palmer said, as she stood inside her art gallery, beaming at the large turnout during opening night. Attendees could barely walk around each other to see the vibrant artwork, mostly created by Newark residents.

Sitting above the gallery are four, newly renovated lofts that are all rented out. The ground floor space that now houses the gallery was once a bail bonds storefront. The property sits adjacent to a Baptist Church and across the street is a waffle house. 

Bonas-Palmer and her husband, Ray Palmer, have been living in Newark for 14 years. They first came to Brooklyn from Trinidad and began buying property in the Brick City because the prices were more affordable than New York.

The two originally moved to the Society Hill neighborhood in Newark but now live in the West Ward. They plan to stay in here for good and contribute to the community they currently live in.

“For my husband and I, we do not want to leave Newark,” Bonas-Palmer said. “We love Newark. We love being part of revitalizing the city. We wanted to do this because we thought that art would have a significant impact on this community.”

Bonas-Palmer found a group of young Newarkers to curate the first art show at her gallery. She met Kaishon Way at an art show that was displayed in his Newark apartment and asked him co-curate at her gallery.   

Bonas-Palmer wanted to give artists like Way a larger platform. Way also works with his 25-year-old friends, Brittney Barnes and Sean Hammond, who all met during high school and started a Newark-based artists collective called TheGALRY. 

Way helped curate the show and put about 13 different artists on display at Bonas-Palmer's gallery. The exhibition was titled "With Shackles, We Fly" and featured artwork that ranged from mixed-media, painting to photography. The artwork will be on display until Feb. 28. 

Way, an industrial design major at the New Jersey Institute of Technology, also had his own artwork on hand Friday night. One of his pieces included a 300-pound furniture piece titled “Kabir.” He used sheetrock, a material that he didn’t know how to work with, to represent the disconnect he felt from not knowing his own heritage.

"It kind of translated into my culture, wherever it is, you're kind of on your own,” Way explained of his mindset while creating his artwork. “I don't really know how I'm supposed to grow up, in a sense, without having such a deep-rooted connection that so many other cultures might have.”

Bonas-Palmer named the gallery, “Akwaaba,” which means welcome. For those who are involved in the West Ward’s revitalization, it’s definitely a welcome addition to the community.

Pamela Daniels, a board member of the West Ward Business Improvement District, called the gallery a "powerful addition" not only to the ward, but all of Newark. She also commended Bonas-Palmer for her vision and setting a standard for the West Ward.

“I'm really impressed by the youth artists that are here that are depicted,” Daniels said of the exhibit after she chatted with some artists Friday night. “Especially when you talk to them, they're looking at things way different. They're looking at not just identity by skin color, but by experience or expression. They're so particular with what they're trying to convey.”

Newark Arts Executive Director Jeremy Johnson came to view the artwork at the exhibit's opening reception and was ecstatic to see a gallery in the West Ward.

“We're so excited that galleries are being created in Newark in the West Ward,” Johnson said. “It's not an easy thing to do and no place more do we need this than in places like right here on South Orange Avenue.”

“Long live the West Ward!” he shouted before turning around to view more art.

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