Article & Photos by David S. Jackson
In a scene reminiscent of Congo Square more than 200 years ago, a large circle of drummers and singers dressed in traditional white African garb surrounded two champions of African-American culture during a torch passing ceremony at Ashé Cultural Center.
Ashé Co-founder and outgoing Executive Director Carol Bebelle held hands with incoming Executive Director Asali DeVan Ecclesiastes as they exchanged words of thanksgiving, respect and love before lighting a candle together in front of a crowd of more than 150 activists, artists and donors while the rhythmic pounding of the drums deftly supported the chants and singing.
“I was shocked when the lights came on and I saw so many people,” said Bebelle. “But I think it’s like a marriage. Some people run away to get married but something special happens when you stand before community and pledge your love for someone. Then, that community now helps you to own that pledge that you made. That’s what I wanted here. I wanted the community to understand that.”
Bebelle helped found the non-profit Efforts of Grace which funds Ashé Cultural Arts Center. For 21 years, Ashé has been a fixture in the New Orleans community and has created and supported programs that emphasize the contributions of people of African descent, hosting local and international world-class musicians, poets, visual artists, and stage performers in the process.
The center also provides approximately 30 affordable apartments for artists along with the Redd House which features three off-site housing units.
Bebelle believes the combination of performance space and living accommodations protect the sanctity of the culture as well as the creative people who build it.
“There’s one way that people kind of look at artists and culture bearers as producers,” said Bebelle. “But they really have an expanded way of looking at things in general. They are the trash to treasure people. It’s not about producing a product, but they have a capacity to bear things and that is critical. So being able to have a place that is comfortable means there is more that they can make available in every day life. They think outside of the box. These people have a purity of creativity that is not just hooked to their capacity to spin a phrase, act in front of the camera, or paint a canvas. These are people who have a highly developed sense of creativity.”
Bebelle cited the 2018 Americans for the Arts Survey that showed while 80 percent of people said they couldn’t live without some form of art in their lives, only 15 percent of that same group had a favorable opinion about artists themselves.
“They saw a need for the art, but not for the artists,” Bebelle remarked.
Bebelle, who has run the center for 21 years, said her biggest accomplishment has been one of stability and financial independence. Bebelle and co-founder Douglass Redd, who died in 2007, took Ashé’ from the thought of a cultural center in central city to an 18,200-square-foot, multi-use facility located on Oretha Castle Haley Boulevard and an advanced “Powerhouse” site on 1731 Baronne Street that boasts two performing arts venues with premium audio and lighting capabilities.
“We own our property and that gives us the ability to really walk on our own path,” added Bebelle. “Everyone who thinks about us, thinks about art. We have always found ways to bring a cultural lens to the table.”
Artists Weigh In
Former City Councilman Oliver Thomas, who performed at Ashé earlier this year as the lead actor in Dr. Flint Mitchell’s play “The Other Black History,” said the preservation of the cultural center is at the heart of our existence as New Orleanians and beyond.
“At the beginning and end of the day, the artisans and creators ultimately determine our humanity and our survival. We can’t have either without them,” said Thomas.
Internationally-acclaimed poet Sunni Patterson attended the event and expressed her congratulations to both leaders.
Poet and author Kelly Harris witnessed the ceremony and embraced the duo as they concluded the ceremony.
“Before the cultural phenomenon of Wakanda, there was Ashé Cultural Arts Center in New Orleans,” said Harris, whose poetry book Freedom Knows My Name will be released in 2020. “Ashé has been African-centered since 1998. Before social media, hash tags, BlackLivesMatter, this was and is the place that bridges our African and Black selves. Ashé Cultural Arts Center has been home to New Orleans Black artists for years. Where else can our genius be validated? We owe a great debt to the co-founders for daring to create a place for us, by us.”
Leading Ashé’ into the 21st century
Ecclesiastes brings an eclectic palette to the executive director’s position. The former spoken word poet has a degree in English education from Vanderbilt University and previously worked as the director of Strategic Neighborhood Development with the New Orleans Business Alliance. She has five years experience working as the Claiborne Corridor Program Manager for the Network for Economic Opportunity.
She also worked as an artist developer and event manager with the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival Foundation. Wearing hats as an artist, event manager and economic developer creates a perfect candidate for someone who can create a holistic model of growing artists and economic platforms for the future.
Ecclesiastes described her vision for the future as one not just of economy building, but one that shifts the paradigm of art appreciation in the greater New Orleans community.
“To be honest with you in a perfect world, a place like Ashé would be commonplace,” said Ecclesiastes. “It wouldn’t be this extraordinary thing. You would have all kinds of Ashés doing different things because the culture would be so valued. We live in a city that literally thrives off the culture that we create, yet we are not thriving. We have to fix that imbalance.”
While the metaphoric comparison of the torch bearing ceremony invoked Congo Square, a place where Africans were allowed to legally gather and perform music once a week in pre-Victorian Era New Orleans, both Ecclesiastes and Bebelle agreed that New Orleans is rapidly becoming a place where artists cannot fulfill their calling.
According to Ecclesiastes, part of the imbalance has been the disproportionate way in which artists are being compensated compared to other professions with the other part being the gentrification of the city. With the influx of people from out of town, laws and policies are being created to limit expression in public.
“It’s even more critical now because the safe spaces that are becoming our neighborhoods are becoming increasingly and increasingly less safe,” said Ecclesiastes. “Spaces that used to be for creation — the front porch or the front yard, are now not safe for us in the same ways. The pushing out of the culture bearers from the heart of the city is having a profound effect. I see Ashé as being a kind of refuge, not just for the creation of art, but for the creation and advancement of the kind of policies that keep our culture safe as well.”
Andreanecia Morris, executive director of the Greater New Orleans Housing Alliance (GNOHA), agrees with Ecclesiastes’ assessment. GNOHA is a collaborative of non-profit housing builders and community development corporations that works to build affordable housing stock for some of the most vulnerable people in the Greater New Orleans region. GNOHA lists artists as one of those critical populations.
“The impact the affordable housing crisis is having on our artists and culture bearers devastates their households, but it’s also costing New Orleans pieces of its soul,” said Morris.
Ecclesiastes, who graduated from McMain High School, is now slated to take the lead of the organization that hosts more than 800 events annually. Through the years Ashé has earned many honors for its work including the 2001 New Orleans Multi-Cultural Tourism Network’s New Product Award, a 2004 New Orleans Mayor’s Arts Award, and the 2007 Big Easy Award for Best Ethnic Dance Production (The Origin of Life on Earth: An African Creation Myth), and the 2018 Essence Excellence Award for Community Activism.
Currently, the non-profit depends on grants, most notably from the Kellogg and Ford foundations, donations from the public and businesses, and rental fees to remain financially viable. Ecclesiastes believes her experience creating private and public partnerships as well as policy building will yield serious dividends for Ashé.
Ecclesiastes said while she is ready for the tremendous amount of work ahead, in a true artistic fashion, she does not want to lose the flavor of the moment.
“So this event is kind of the culmination of the love that I have been getting since this was announced. I have to say this has been the honor of my life, the response from the community, so tonight was just the icing on the cake. It brought it all together in a very visceral way. It was extremely powerful. I feel very blessed. Honestly, it was heartwarming and incredibly fulfilling. It was just a sweetness for two people who have a great respect for one another,” she added.