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How the Pandemic Inspired The Twelve, an Unusual Art Gallery and Community Space

"We really want this project to be an inspiration to people, to be a hope-giver."

Photo by Obi Okolo.

There’s a new spot to check out in the Union Market area. The Twelve contains three sections: a lounge area for workshops and conversations, a storefront, and a rotating art gallery. But don’t call it a store. Or a gallery. Or a lounge. The Twelve is a “year-long art/retail/gathering experiment,” according to its website, and will only be open for 12 months, says Amira El-Gawly, one of the co-creators and also the founder of Manifesta and St. Plant.

“It’s a project, not a long-term business, and there’s a difference there,” she says of The Twelve, named for the 12 friends and acquaintances with DC ties who are spearheading the project. “What if we could reimagine what it means to be part of the marketplace? To be in a storefront, but not be a profit-first venture? And what would it look like to put people first and people’s needs first and the community first?”

Photo by Obi Okolo.
Photo by Obi Okolo.

The idea came about from conversations the group had during the pandemic—in March and April, it felt like there was a sense of camaraderie. Everyone was just discovering Zoom happy hours, and we really couldn’t go anywhere. It was a group effort. But that’s changed, she says. “We’re all so disconnected, everyone’s lonely,” says El-Gawly, who is 36 and lives in Dupont Circle.

Enter The Twelve. The group sees the space as a way to facilitate connectivity and community during a time that has redefined those terms. “How are we going to learn to relate to each other again? How are we going to talk about the core themes of our lives, like what matters most?,” says El-Gawly. “Like friendship and being a good neighbor and what does it mean to be a part of a community?”

The Twelve founders. Top row, left to right: Alison Beshai, Reggie Black, Talyah Alpern, and Obi Okolo. Middle row, left to right: M. Gert Doriot, Curry Hackett, Joi Jackson, and Amira El-Gawly. Bottom row, left to right: Lori Parkerson, Britnie Dates, Ayana Zaire Cotton, and Julian Barnes.

When guests first enter the space, they’ll see the retail area, filled with objects centered “around making life cozy through simple pleasure,” says El-Gawly. Think houseplants, vintage house ware and decor, wellness products, candles, puzzles, jewelry, and apparel. Everything has been sourced with an emphasis on sustainability, says El-Gawly, and most of the goods are from small businesses, including local spots like St. Plant and Denniston House.

In the gallery section, there will be a series of rotating exhibits with an emphasis on audience engagement. The first is a photography collection by Obi Okolo, a photographer, Stag Creative founder, and one of The Twelve. It features shots of DC locals holding objects that are significant to them, and for the next few months, Okolo will be in the space to take pictures of DC people who come in with their own special objects.

Photo by Obi Okolo.

And then the living room area will be a space for community conversations and events like gardening workshops, tea ceremonies, and poetry readings. But because of the pandemic and capacity restrictions, the community area is not yet open and hosting events.

Which leads to this point: Isn’t it difficult to open a space built around the idea of bringing people together during a pandemic, when gathering can be deadly? The group already postponed opening The Twelve several times, due to Covid concerns and the Capitol insurrection. But they ultimately realized there’s no perfect time to open, says El-Gawly, and that people may need a space like this right now.

“We really want this space, and I think this entire project, to be an inspiration to people, to be a hope-giver. That even in the midst of this pandemic, even in the midst of all this craziness, we can come together and create something beautiful and meaningful and inspiring,” she says. “Even if it means we can only get a few people in the space at a time, that is really meaningful and worth it.”

And, in a strange twist, as other retail and community spaces are shutting, The Twelve likely wouldn’t exist if it wasn’t for Covid, says El-Gawly: “It is 100-percent inspired by the suffering and disconnection and hopelessness that we experienced and felt in other people,” she says. “If the pandemic hadn’t happened, I don’t think this idea would have ever emerged.”

The Twelve is open Wednesday through Saturday from 11 AM until 7 PM. The full list of co-founders is Talyah Alpern, Julian Barnes, Alison Beshai, Reggie Black, Ayana Zaire Cotton, Britnie Dates, M.Gert Doriot, Amira El-Gawly, Curry Hackett, Joi Jackson, Obi Okolo, and Lori Parkerson.

The Twelve; 1262 5th St. NE

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Mimi Montgomery Washingtonian
Associate Editor

Mimi Montgomery joined Washingtonian in 2018. Her work has appeared in Outside Magazine, Washington City Paper, DCist, and PoPVille. Originally from North Carolina, she now lives in Petworth.