Surviving: Roberto Dyea’s Manga Exploration of Indigenous Identity and Process is a Fitting Comeback for Waller Gallery

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Waller Gallery sits nestled into a cozy residential block of North Calvert Street. The block is a checkerboard of different kinds of row houses from different eras, such as the yellow brick variety, or the more standard Old Goucher regal three story. The block is often made invisible by the legacy of Baltimore’s transportation policy, as the street becomes a canyon for car commuters’ daily Death Star trench run through the neighborhood. In this melee, Waller Gallery exemplifies the quiet mundane serendipity of what can be missed by an enclosed motorist.

The block feels lived-in, although it’s bookended by an abandoned house on the south corner—one that’s been deliberately decorated with flowers for as long as I have living memory in Baltimore. To the north, the block is hugged by the crossroads of 25th Street and its din, and features street life that founding gallery director Joy Davis actively engages in, often waving people to come in through the iconic large front window.

This engagement is becoming a bit of a rarity in Baltimore’s post-2010 art scene, with the slow dwindling of former DIY spaces and the trickling retirement of those who once operated them to career changes or perhaps the necessary pivot to gardening. But for Davis–with a history of activism, organizing, and career-long focus on centering voices not historically included in the canon of our increasingly segregated country’s dominant narrative—this inclusion comes quite naturally.


Photo by Dominic Green, courtesy of Waller Gallery

Since opening in 2016, Waller gallery has been the steady passion of Davis, a curator, fashion historian, and cultural organizer hailing originally from Baltimore. With the gallery honoring Davis’s mother’s lineage with its name, Waller has come to represent an intentional setting of roots in Baltimore post-uprising and post-Trump in an effort to reclaim Black cultural legacy in Baltimore, while also maintaining the accessible DIY ethos that bolstered the art and music scenes of the past two decades.

This continuous curatorial narrative flows through to the current show, which closes this Saturday, July 22nd. Surviving The One is a solo show from Baltimore-based artist and MICA’s MFA in Community Arts alum, Roberto Dyea, who is here credited additionally as Tsi Yoo Nah. Quoting Waller Gallery’s exhibition text: “The goal of Surviving The One is to present a future of Indigenous art. The artist asks: ‘What would Indigenous manga characters look like in the 21st century?'”


Photo by Dominic Green, courtesy of Waller Gallery
Photo by Dominic Green, courtesy of Waller Gallery
What would Indigenous manga characters look like in the 21st century?

Drawing on the several different styles of manga, the show is an encapsulation of the narrative, conceptual art, and general themes of a long gestating graphic novel from Dyea. It’s often said that to start writing, one should write what they know, and the story is informed by the artist’s lived Indigenous experience. While the narrative isn’t directly obvious to an uninitiated viewer, it follows an interior hero’s journey for the novel’s protagonist as they navigate modern life and their Indigenous tradition simultaneously. This dual identity is illustrated most clearly in two character designs in the gallery’s main hallway: one character wearing jeans and more modern dress, and their counterpart wearing more traditional indigenous dress, a cloak. These pieces, like most of the work in the show, are monochromatic. The exhibition is attractive with its muted palette, matching the tone of the newly renovated gallery while conjuring the effect of reading a graphic novel printed in newsprint. It is at once appealing, but one would be hard pressed to replicate the texture of this experience, given how these works must be printed, but that is no fault of the artist’s. 

As someone with a background in illustration, I will admit I often find it difficult to talk about manga in terms of its style alone, and this aspect of the show challenged me. Because it is an artform with an industry standard that many young artists seek to replicate faithfully in a bid to be employed in its industrial ranks, it can be difficult to locate who any one artist really is. Narratively, however, Dyea attempts to break this necessary evil of the form, while also tapping into the universality of the style of storytelling. In this way, manga can be seen as not only a genre but a language, and its subsequent popularity means that it’s developed into its own version of a mainstream visual callbacks and references with a nuance all its own. That pop familiarity comes across as a motivation for not only Dyea, but Waller Gallery itself. Most young people could tell you who Goku is, but not Goya.


Photo by Dominic Green, courtesy of Waller Gallery

Dyea is no slouch, and the work in the show is presented seemingly in a linear fashion of its creation. The front room of the gallery retains the imprint of Waller’s former pre-renovation space, a typical Charles Village rowhome living room, illuminated by Waller’s signature large scale picture window (replicated in the gallery logo) filling the space with natural light. In this room we have the two earliest pieces in Dyea’s oeuvre, direct sketches that feel more dynamic and immediate than some of the finished work, showcasing the linework in the character designs and creating a more tactile experience than some of the other more fleshed-out and finished digital works, created using the software Procreate. 

The strongest part of the Dyea’s exhibition, however, are the series of spirit deities on display in the gallery’s back room. The viewer feels surrounded, and despite its sterility, the room conjures something more intentionally hallowed. With the replicating motifs of a hanged man, the prints are fleshed-out in dark colors over a background evocative of Star Trek: Deep Space 9 era 90’s CGI, portraying a loose and unofficial pantheon of spirits, almost an introspective “choose your fighter” menu. The figures are reminiscent in design of manga motifs and other genre-based characters such as Predator or the Ninja Turtles. They seem meant to evoke the spiritual companionship necessary to address the many atrocities Native People have faced on land stolen from them, utilizing the repeating hanged man motif present in the character designs as a symbol of this genocide.


Photo by Dominic Green, courtesy of Waller Gallery

While not the typical kind of 2D artwork that is displayed in most gallery spaces, Dyea’s exhibition is in line with the curatorial consistency of the space. Davis’ vision as curator has been one of creating space and access through artists and partnerships. In a city that is increasingly bereft of cross-culturally accessible space not tied to a greater institution, Waller’s recent renovation has allowed the independent gallery to maintain its role as such a space—now more safely. Made possible by the Neighborhood Design Center’s ASTA program (the Art Space Technical Assistance Program, profiled in Issue 14 of BmoreArt), the gallery recently reopened with this exhibition after completing a long-sought renovation, bringing the space up to code as a suitable venue with ADA compliance, improved lighting, and increased wall space. 

Overseen by architect Karla Brent, the coordinator of the program, with assistance from Central Baltimore Partnership, the ASTA program was able to facilitate the repairs and renovation to Waller with the help of grant funding, contracting an architect and other specialists to make the renovations possible—something that would be a significant obstacle to a DIY gallery operating solely on its own. 

Created in response to the aftermath of the 2016 Ghostship fire, and the subsequent eviction of the Bell Foundry artists in Greenmount West, the ASTA program has worked hard to create a Baltimore where there is a pipeline from DIY space to “legitimate” and sustainable institutions, such as Current Space. A lasting positive outcome of the Catherine Pugh-era Artspace Task Force, viewed with a lot of cynicism at the time, ASTA has already been able to assist spaces like the Harlem Theatre and the Compound, among others, according to Brent. While not a catchall, programs like ASTA do have ripple effects. Waller is now able to provide space and partnership to other groups, effectively allowing them to be more “on the books,” as a ladder to others.


Photo by Dominic Green, courtesy of Waller Gallery

And that’s what makes Surviving The One, closing this Saturday the 22nd, such a fitting reopening for the Old Goucher institution.

While Waller is able to serve as a ladder for others, so too does Dyea’s work—creating an accessible way for otherwise uninitiated viewers to become exposed to the experiences and reflections of modern-day Indigenous life in all its complexities, seeing their own lives as part of that conversation and ecosystem. No action happens completely within a void, and as shown with the positive, if delayed, outcomes of the meandering narrative of the late Artspace Task Force, none of us are in this alone.


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