Kea Tawana

The Ark conceived and built by Kea Tawana. Photo courtesy of The Star Ledger/Newark Public Library.

About Kea Tawana, ca. 1935 – 2016

Dedicated. Unorthodox. Quixotic. These are just some of the words you could use to describe Kea Tawana, but they could easily be used to describe her art. Known for daring to create what others only dreamed, this enigmatic codebreaker carved her name into the history books of Newark life in the 1980s with a project that lives on in the memories and hearts of countless Brick City residents — The Ark of Newark. 

Given Gallery Aferro’s dedication to honoring underrepresented communities and remarkable trailblazers who rarely receive their due in the mainstream art scene, reassembling the story of Tawana’s massive project during the backdrop of a city on the verge of revitalization was not only a major undertaking, but also an important tribute to the enduring heart of Newark’s artistic community and those who refused to be defined by the opinions of others. The Ark of Newark became a beacon of communal pride when many had written off New Jersey’s largest city, and its beginning was equally extraordinary.

The one and only Kea Tawana. Photo courtesy of The Star Ledger/Newark Public Library.

Whether born in Japan or on the Hopi nation in Arizona, Tawana was undoubtedly a person who believed that life was not meant to be confined to one place. Traveling around the country before settling in Newark in 1966 didn’t satisfy Tawana’s wanderlust, so even while residing in Brick City, she remained mobile after building her home on the bed of her truck that allowed her to move around as she pleased. With that in mind, the concept behind the Ark of Newark couldn’t have been far away. 

Gathering materials found throughout the city from demolished sites, abandoned buildings and general ephemera, Tawana began to slowly build the Ark in the late summer of 1982. As the project grew over time, scaling substantially and drawing the attention of local residents, visitors and the city government, the “inadvertent art” became a symbol of Newarker’s fighting spirit in a time where most of the state and nation had all but abandoned the city in retaliation of the 1967 Rebellion and its fallout. 

Using recycled materials from abandoned buildings, found items, and demolition leftovers, Tawana carried all of the Ark pieces back to her makeshift build site on Camden Street. The hull was shaped out of timbers from affluent homes from Newark’s heyday, paving stones made the ballast, and iron from fire escapes and fencing bound everything together. Whether it was a transformer from an old elevator shaft or salvaged toilets, sinks and pipes to form a plumbing system, her ingenuity resulted in a creation that stood almost 35’ high (10.6 meters), 20’ wide (6 meters) and 86’ long (26.2 meters), weighing an estimated 80-125 tons. 

The expression of unrestricted creativity took on a new meaning for those living in the Central Ward and beyond. As a result, the Ark was everything from praised to criticized to ignored by those passing by or local residents. However, in 1986, the city pushed to have the Ark removed when it decided to sell the lot the art piece used for staging. Tawana acquiesced and moved the Ark 25 feet into the Humanity Baptist Church lot, but the move was not enough to keep the Ark off of the city government’s radar. And in the late spring of 1988, after visits from local students on field trips, praise from well-known artists and arts institutions, a feature on ABCNews World News Tonight, and even a Concert for a Dying Ark, the vessel that belonged “to a realm of dreams and play” was razed by the city to make way for a housing development. 

In 2015-2016, in collaboration the Clement A. Price Institute on Ethnicity, Culture & the Modern Experience, Gallery Aferro began a grassroots oral history and exhibition project called Kea’s Ark of Newark to revive the memory of Tawana’s magnum opus and introduce it to a new generation. Curating hundreds of items including interviews with Newark citizens who volunteered to share their memories of the skilled ark builder and her creation, Aferro built an archive consisting of Tawana’s notes, sketches, ephemera, and more. 

When patrons stop by the gallery today, they can enjoy the “Have You Seen This Ark?” newspaper with essay by Dr. Mark Krasovic, and recordings of the interviews conducted by Gallery Director Emma Wilcox acessible on a classic Bell silver payphone located on the second floor Eleta J. Caldwell and Rodney M. Gilbert Memorial Gallery. The culmination of dedicated research and legacy work, the gallery’s permanent audio exhibition and accompanying literature is a proud part of our continued goal to preserve our cultural history and heighten the visibility of artwork created by important female, African-American and LGBTQ+ artists.

Sketches of the Ark of Newark began early in 1982. Photo courtesy of the Camille Billops/Hatch-Billops Archive.
The Ark conceived and built by Kea Tawana. Photo by Michael DalCerro.
In 1986, Tawana relocated the Ark a short distance into the lot behind the Humanity Baptist Church. Photo courtesy of the Camille Billops/Hatch-Billops Archive.
Tawana walking atop her Ark during an ABC News special news broadcast in 1987.
A note from Kea Tawana to the youth of Newark. Photo courtesy of the Camille Billops/Hatch-Billops Archive.
Kea Tawana with a reporter giving an interview on top of the Ark of Newark. Photo courtesy of ABC News.