by Imani Neville
2018 is the year of celebrations.
And as the city gears up to commemorate its 300th anniversary, Ashé Cultural Arts Center—a New Orleans institution—is also celebrating its part in shaping and defining New Orleans since it opened its doors in 1998—nearly 20 years ago.
With plans to stage a year-long celebration, Ashé Cultural Arts Center kicked off its festivities on Dec. 15 2017 with the annual Holiday on the Boulevard Open House, which featured a holiday marketplace, dance performances, photos with Black Santa, a fashion show and more. And there is more to come.
To commensurate its 20-year journey, Ashé will renovate the ground floor of its main facility located at 1712 Oretha Castle Haley. The updated center will include a refreshed lobby and marketplace a showcase/exhibition arts/ performance space and more office space for the Ashé Center.
Signatures plays and events will also be mounted throughout the year. Some will be “reunion” pieces that will include returning and new actors. And Ashé will also produce and exhibit video and photo projects that celebrate past events and the many people who have been a part of the Ashé experience.
In the mid 1990s, Carol Bebelle, who received her undergraduate degree from Loyola University in sociology and her master’s degree from Tulane University in education administration, had already spent nearly 20 years in the public sector as an administrator and planner in education, social, cultural and health programs before establishing her own consulting firm offering services to community and non-profit organizations. It was through this work that she began to realize that the importance of the culture and creativity of the people of this city.
Douglas Redd was a graduate of Dillard University with a degree bachelor’s degree in studio art who believed in the preservation of cultural symbols and created new and different visual statements about historical and cultural African and African American concepts and images. From 1993 to 1998 he was commissioned to design and create five installations known as “Efforts of Grace” that celebrate the determined spirit of African and African American people. The works were given a Cultural Olympiad Recognition Award and made part of the 1996 Atlanta Olympics.
In 1998, Bebelle and Redd were working on a project together, searching for rehearsal space for their production when they saw the opportunity to create a place that would serve as a hub of art and heritage on Oretha Castle Haley Boulevard. Actually, when Redd and Bebelle were offered the lease on the building at 1712 Oretha Castle Haley Boulevard, Redd was sold on the idea early. But it took a while for Bebelle to catch up with his vision.
At the time, the thoroughfare hardly appeared as inviting as it does now with its overgrown lots, crime and urban decay. But by December of 1998, she too saw the possibilities. The duo took the lease on the property and began to transform the building.
Bebelle says, “We wanted it to be a place where there was provoking thought. We wanted a town hall or town square in which to encounter themselves with history.”
In a 2008 interview with The New Orleans Tribune, BeBelle said, “the day we walked in, there was nothing but the balcony and concrete walls, which was about as much as Douglas needed. It was an art installation to him.”
Redd built the stage and transformed the walls, and Ashé was founded. Co-founders of Ashe, Redd and Bebelle were the cornerstone of the Center, seeing through the best and worst of times.
Officially opening in December 1998, the Ashé Cultural Arts Center has been, at once, an art gallery, a theater, a meeting place, a classroom, a market place and more.
When times were tough and art shows were few, Bebelle and Redd created events to spark interest in both the Central City neighborhood and in Ashé. The annual Holiday on the Boulevard is one example.
Bebelle says culture is critical at Ashé. In addition to art exhibitions and theatrical productions, the Center has programs for adults, children that focus on, community, culture, education, social entrepreneurship, and wellness among many other areas.
In 2006, drummer Luther Gray began teaching a weekly drum circle at Ashé. Jose Torres Tamas staged his “Teatro Sin Fronteras” (“Theater Without Borders”) at Ashé in 2017. Harold Clarke’s Fishers of Men graced the stage of the Ashé Power House in 2015. The art shows, theatrical productions, and cultural activities of all sorts held at Ashe over the last 20 years are too numerous to list.
Bebelle, along with Ashé staff and its Board of Directors have worked to continue efforts to transform, direct and impact the Central City neighborhood it calls homes. Over the years, Ashé has grown from the original space.
With grants from the Ford Foundation and other sources, in 2006, Ashé was able to purchase the building it began leasing eight years earlier. Soon after, it began its expansion into the neighboring building.
According to its website, The Center hosts an average of 800 events a year with over 30,000 visits from visitors from all over the world.
Ashé offers three distinct facilities for event rental, including the original space known as Ashé I at 1712 Oretha Castle Haley, the larger Ashé Too, right next door at 1724 Oretha Castle Haley, and the newest facility opened in 2015 the Ashé Power House Gallery and Theater, located 1731 Baronne Street.
To be sure, 2018 marks far more than the 20th anniversary of Ashé. It is the 20th anniversary of the resurgence of an entire neighborhood. Since 1998, many others have joined Bebelle and Redd, who died in 2007, in the vision of transforming Oretha Castle Haley Boulevard and Central City.
The historic corridor now buzzes with activity. It is home to Hope Credit Union, Café Reconcile, the Zeitgeist Multi-Disciplinary Arts Center, the New Orleans Jazz Market, the Southern Food and Beverage Museum, Dryades Public Market and other small businesses, restaurants and cultural entities.
For those who may not have known, “àse” or “ashé” is a West African philosophical concept of the Yoruba people of Nigeria that stands for power, command, and authority. In other words, it is the ability to make to make things happen and produce change.
To be sure, the revitalization of and public and private investment in Oretha Castle Haley Boulevard and Central City began 20 years ago with two young culture bearers, their shared vision and lease on a building.