“It’s about being raised in Africa,” says Nnennaya Onyejuruwa, the owner of Ashione Gallery, referring to the meaning and purpose behind her shop. Any visitor to Ashione, tucked at the back of Flea Market Antiques and Collectibles, is guaranteed a warm welcome from Nnennaya and possibly one of her grown daughters, Ugonma and Ivuoma. Nnennaya told me that in Nigeria, where she is from, and in many other parts of Africa, “it really took a village to raise you." Because of that, Nnennaya finds herself constantly thinking about the close-knit community of her homeland. When her daughters were born, she wanted to make sure that they had the same sense of second home and extended family network, a desire and drive that eventually formed the foundations of Ashione Gallery.
In 1972, Nnennaya moved to New York with her then-husband. She studied at Columbia University and City College and then worked as an early childhood specialist for twenty-one years. Nnennaya chose to work with young children in the community rather than the education system, since that is where she believed she was most needed. Even though her own children would go through the American school system and grow up as New Yorkers, Nnennaya made sure that they did not forget their roots. She always emphasized the proper pronunciation of their names, explaining, “Everyone else will fudge on your name, so you must not.”
Nnennaya is probably best known for what she accomplished in her last six years as a childcare worker, which she spent in the court system. She related to me how she saw an ad in the newspaper by Victim Services Agency for a specialist to work with children. These young ones, who were from families going through the legal process, often suffered from abuse or the debilitating effects of growing up in a highly stressful family environment. Whereas most of her colleagues would not consider the job, citing the fact that children need stability and repetition (something that does not exist in the court system), Nnennaya, in her own words, said “Give them to me.” She ran the center from 1983-1989, marshaling court resources and the community at large. She even instituted a food pantry for families at risk of losing their children due to lack of food in the house while waiting for welfare to kick in. Nnennaya ran her program with help from community volunteers,including many retired specialists or students, who worked with the children. The programs were so successful that the Roxbury District Court in Boston asked for her assistance in opening a similar service. The judges were very appreciative of the programs, and Nnennaya was nominated by a Bronx Family Court judge to receive the 1989 Professional Special Citation, a country-wide award given annually by the National Labor Committee in honor Lewis Hine. Nnennaya proudly claims as a legacy the fact that she was able to institute the first three Court based Children Centers in the Boroughs of New York, services still being enjoyed by distressed families to this day. Many newly built court houses now also contain Children's Centers.
Understandably, Nnennaya felt “burnt out” after twenty-one years and turned her attention to her own children. One of her main difficulties in raising her daughters was “finding art that spoke of them.” The story that was told in all the museums that she took them to was very Euro-centric, so she began finding and collecting her own art, often taking trips back to Africa. The art proved to be popular among many people besides her children, including friends from the United Nations who visited her home. Ultimately, she was encouraged to open Ashione Gallery. “It came out of a need to stabilize my children,” she added, smiling. For many years, the gallery resided in the West Village (first on Perry Street and then on West 4th Street), but in its seventeenth year, 2008, the economy failed. Nnennaya decided to close and reopen in a place where she could share space. She moved to a corner of the indoor flea market on 25th Street and has slowly expanded, taking over the whole back room.
“We wanted a store of African Life,” Nnennaya stated, explaining that the gallery not only features African art and jewelry, but also invokes a sense of the African spirit. Nnennaya and her daughters greet everyone with the warmth of an African village – “We make people feel proud of whoever they are.” The women also occasionally hold events where they serve African food. “You become immersed in African culture in our shop,” Nnennaya told me. The unique nature of the space has earned the gallery some very positive attention, including an exposure of their objects in the New York Times and a feature in one of the episodes of Sex and the City. “We are the “It” store for African works of art,” Nnennaya proudly announced.
Though pleased by the attention of television and the media, Nnennaya appears to be equally moved by the special experiences that ordinary shoppers have in her store. She told me that one woman, who was a nurse in Miami, discovered Ashione Gallery while visiting New York. Three years later, the woman returned, waving the gallery’s business card. She had held onto it all that time, eager to come back one day. Another woman bought a pair of earrings at Ashione when the store was still in the Village. When she visited again a few years later, she was crestfallen that the store was no longer there. Luckily, she found the new address and showed up in her earrings, filled to the brim with stories to tell Nnennaya about all the compliments she had received whenever she wore them. These were only two of a myriad of stories in which people have formed a true connection with Ashione Gallery.
There is no doubt in my mind, however, that the real reason that people go out of their way to reconnect with the gallery is the nature of its owner. Nnennaya is a fascinating, bright woman who exudes warmth and friendship. No one can possibly leave Ashione without lifted spirits and the strong desire to want to visit again.
When I asked Jacob Farber, the administrator and finance manager of the Center for Book Arts, what stood out to him as the most quintessential part of this fascinating company, he responded without hesitation: "We teach book binding and letter press classes. " He continued, "We even have hot rubber stamping machines. We are also a place for artists to come and learn how to make a book incorporating their own art. " Jacob encouraged me to walk through the space and check out what The Center for Book Arts has to offer. Every aspect of this third floor space is dedicated to the art and the appreciation of books in all of its forms. Opened in 1974, the non-profit Center is the first of its kind, devoting its entire attention to books. In addition to the classes that are held, there are on-going art exhibitions. As the owner of a bookstore for many years, I found my time spent on the third floor of this West 27th Street building to be absolutely fascinating. I was afforded the opportunity to learn firsthand about yet another aspect of the book business.
The School of Visual Arts, a fine arts institute, has buildings scattered throughout Manhattan. At this particular location, however, they regularly display artwork from current and recently graduated MFA students. The MFA program has a rather "democratic" focus. We found all of the art to be accessible, both through its presentation and its inspiration, and we felt as though popular and familiar visual mediums were emphasized. Comics and infographics shared the same walls with more classical line drawings. Signage and 3D were brought to the level of high art and another room hummed with the electricity of four television monitors playing loops. Although the gallery space is small, the pieces, themselves, were charged with ready and apparent meaning due to their use of popular visual media.
With all the centers we have discovered dedicated to children, pets, students, and shoppers, it was refreshing and intriguing to come upon Senior Planet – “the country’s first technology themed center for over-60s. ” The center offers courses, skill-shares, workshops, special events and lecture series that help senior citizens deal with the ever-changing technological world. 22 computers, 3 Skype stations, a gaming area, a projector, mobile devices and a lounge create a space that one might think is fit for a youngster, but is, in fact, the perfect space for the senior folks. “Aging with attitude” is their motto. Computer basics, advanced computing, introduction to the iPad, digital photography, social networking and more are all taught in a welcoming environment. What a brilliant concept!
A favorite of Lady Gaga, Katy Perry, and Sarah Jessica Parker, New York Vintage is what co-founder Shannon Hoey describes as “a leader in fashion. ” Shannon has spent the past twenty-three years amassing an extensive collection of vintage clothing, which includes a downstairs retail space open to the public and an upstairs industry archive open by appointment only. Over the years, Shannon has dressed red carpet actresses and world-famous singers, and has worked closely with costume designers on a range of films and TV series, including Boardwalk Empire and Mad Men. In 2010, First Lady Michelle Obama made a historic appearance in a New York Vintage Norman Norell dress, and since then, Shannon has dressed her on many occasions. When I first visited New York Vintage, I could not believe my eyes. The window display was stunning, as was the old-fashioned décor, complete with richly upholstered chairs, gilded mirrors, and ornate chandeliers. I was captivated by the wall of Vogue photographs, each one featuring a piece from Shannon’s collection, and of course, by the true treasure of New York Vintage: high-heeled shoes, flamboyant hats, and endless racks of beautiful dresses from designers around the world. Upstairs, the industry archive upstairs was filled with even more outrageous items, from a dress owned by Ulysses Grant’s wife to intricate McQueen headpieces. “Every piece here has historical significance, ” Shannon told me. “We’re an institution, a working museum archive. ” In fact, she added, many of the items at New York Vintage have been purchased from museums, and each piece is meticulously documented and entered into a database. Today, Shannon is one of New York’s foremost experts on fashion as an art form, so I was surprised to learn that she never set out to work with vintage clothing. “Fashion discovered me, ” she told me, explaining how her husband’s career in antiques first sparked her interest in vintage. It quickly became her passion, and within a few years, she and her husband co-founded New York Vintage. “He handles the business side of things, and I’m the creative director, ” Shannon explained. “So I get to do the fun part. ”But the vintage business can be difficult, too, and it took years of hard work for Shannon to build her collection. “The kind of fashion we seek is not easily found, ” she said. “It takes patience and capital, and you need to know what you’re looking for. ” In the early days, Shannon spent a lot of time searching for new pieces in Europe, but nowadays, with three young daughters, she travels much less. When I asked about her children, she said with a smile, “They spend a lot of time here with me, and they love playing dress-up. ”Shannon, unsurprisingly, also loves dressing up, and she told me that she has a lot of opportunities to wear items from her collection. “Halloween is my favorite holiday, ” she explained, “And last year I went to Allison Sarofim’s Italian futurism-themed party in a pink Mohawk and mod clothing. ” But Shannon’s favorite era is the 1920s. “I’m obsessed with all of it, ” she said. “The mindset, the freedom, the departure from women being bound and put in corsets. ”Still marveling over Shannon’s list of celebrity clients, which includes Julia Roberts and Beyonce, I asked if she ever gets starstruck. When celebrities first started flocking to the store, she told me, it was totally overwhelming, “like running from a tidal wave. ” But since then, the only time she has really been starstruck was her visit to the White House with the First Lady. “Some celebrities still catch me off-guard, ” she said, “Like the time Nicole Kidman showed up unannounced. But otherwise, I’m used to it. ”When I asked Shannon about the future of New York Vintage, she told me that they are hoping to expand overseas. “We want to open our doors to global clients, ” she told me, “maybe by opening an outpost in Europe. ” But until then, she told me, she will continue to do what she loves here in New York, working with designers, inspiring them and feeling inspired. For Shannon, the truly fulfilling part of her job is working with designers and models, creating with them and helping to communicate their vision. “I’m always inspired, ” she said with a smile. “I have the best job in the world. ”