Founder of Ashione Gallery
After moving to New York in the seventies from Nigeria, Nnennaya spent over twenty years as an early childhood specialist in schools and court systems to educate and advocate for at-risk children. Upon retirement, Nnennaya established an African art gallery as a means of connecting with her two young daughters on her culture and heritage. Ashione (abbreviated from Ashiowonne, which means 'grandeur') Gallery is now the leading gallery and store in New York that specializes in African art.
Where are you from and what was your childhood like?
I was born in Igboland, which is in Southeast Nigeria. Back then, they didn't have the tribes that you have today and it really took a village to raise a child and I was a product of that.
A family was responsible for everybody around them and everybody around them was responsible for your family. So no kids went hungry. If you were hungry, you could always go to your neighbor’s house. If they were eating you could just join them. There was no fanfare, you were just part of the community. If your father or mother were not there to discipline you, a neighbor would discipline you and tell your parents when they came back, so you got disciplined twice. Your teacher was part of that disciplinary structure in your life.
That environment makes you very resilient because not only do you know that your parents have your back but also that your community has your back. The community is responsible for you, so those are the skills that I brought over here. And you learn how to solve problems, because we didn't have computers or other tools, we only had each other. So we had to talk to each other and mutually try to find solutions to life's problems.
How did your move to America happen?
I was raised by exceptional parents. While other children were given structure, my parents left me outside alone. I would dig in the sand and be in my own world. Just think about how much you can learn from adults not standing on top of you. I would be outside digging trenches, making houses and it really helped my thinking, to free my mind.
Everybody wanted to see what was on the other side of the world! As a little kid, I was thinking to myself that my village couldn't be all there was to life. There must have been something on the other side. In those days, everyone talked about England because we'd been colonized and so most people want to go to England. But I heard about America and the floating idea was that America was freer and younger and would let you be you so that's where I wanted to go. English people can be a little stuffy and we were so used to them. So it was the idea of freedom, being able to achieve whatever, which my parents had already started inculcating in me, that made me think about America as a possible destination.
My father was one of the chiefs of the village and had gone to a Western school. He gave us all kinds of opportunities, like sending us to the best schools, but he also acclimatized us to the native way of life - a communal way of living. I understand that he used to be a teacher before he became a businessperson. My mother was just a homemaker but she ran a string of little restaurants, up to three at a time. So I was exposed to that industriousness from early on. My parents were both leaders in community. If anyone wanted to know about our village, they would send for our daddy. This idea of leadership was inculcated in me growing up. As women, we would typically be shooed away from meetings like that but my father always had me around when he met with visitors.
My ex-husband came from the same area that I did in Igboland. In those days, your parents decided who you marry. So when my ex husband approached my family to marry me, they agreed because he came from an upstanding family. At that time, he was in the process of coming here and I always wanted to go to America.
What made you want to move to America?
I wanted to know what was on the other side. I was already inclined to get out if the opportunity presented itself. Our parents at the time saw it as upward mobility, to reach whatever heights that you strove for yourself.
Tell me more about the move here. What did you bring?
I still remember coming down the escalator from the plane. If you can imagine, the villager that I was. I had to hold the handrail and this staircase was moving. I was so used to stairs not moving and being so smooth but with the escalator, these new steps kept appearing and if you misstepped, you would fall! It was quite hilarious to see me standing there holding on with my native attire and not try to fall off. It was a movie to me. I kept laughing to myself like, "where am I?" Then, I got off and saw the carousel and they said I had to wait for my luggage there. Back home, people would carry the luggage and prepare it for me. Instead, I had to watch the carousel for my luggage, so that was new and surprising. This was in the seventies.
Tell me about your first few years in NY.
First of all, I remember vividly seeing some African Americans and being so reminded of home and missing it so much that I would cry over that. Their ways and gait reminded me so much of the people back home even though these strangers that I observed were not people I knew. So I would sit and cry. I missed that communal spirit. And to go to school and work at the same time, all the while trying to establish my family without a sense of community, that took a toll on my marriage, it only lasted five years and we had to separate.
I used to be an early childhood specialist. I worked in the South Bronx. It's amazing to people that it didn't bother me to work there back then. I enjoyed the families. Then in the late seventies and eighties, I worked in Harlem. Back then, Harlem wasn't so chic. It's so chic now it's unbelievable. At that time, they had abandoned buildings everywhere. I spent fourteen years working with families and then worked in the court system for another six. Many people thought I was absolutely out of my mind.
They wanted a teacher to work in the courts, to work with abused children and children who had come to court with their families. I said who more can you help than a kid who is so stressed - their mother don't know when they're gonna have a home and the kids may be removed from that. I said who more deserving of the services than the children? This was in the Bronx Family Court, where there were a lot of distressed kids being taken away from their moms and I looked at my supervisor and said "Listen, I came because I wanted to make a difference, if I see that I can't make a difference, I'm not gonna stay".
I told him I wanted a trained teacher with a masters degree to help me out, because that wasn't a situation where you had someone who was not trained. I told him I needed an assistant teacher and that we could go from there. He said that I was asking for a lot but that he would take a look at the budget. I was like that, I pushed and asked for things if I felt it was necessary. To his credit, he went and moved things around and got some money and we hired some teachers and I had an assistant and within six months, we had books, we had parties, we took them out once a year to a program - a boat in the river and they provided care for people without any insurance. Once a year, we gathered all those children and their parents could not believe it. Kids who had never had medical care before. Around Christmas, I would get an Assistant District Attorney and tell him you are my Santa Claus. He couldn't believe my gumption when I told him, and I told him not to worry, we have pillows for you.
Why did you go into working with children instead of higher paying job?
In the African culture, decision are between you and your husband most of the time. I wanted to be an attorney. I really wanted it. I told him I wanted to be an attorney and he looked at me and said, “who wants to be married to an attorney?” The reasoning was that I was going to be higher than him, paid more than him, and that was a no-no in his mind. I'm sure today there are families who do it but in the 70s, which he was a product of, he could not accept that. Then I wanted to be a writer also. This time it was my uncle who pushed back. My uncle said how are you going to get married being a writer? It was such a shame because there are such great writers coming out of Igboland today. And so in a way it's interesting that I came to this country to pursue freedom and yet I was held held back by those cultural pressures from back home.
How did Ashione Gallery start after that?
When my kids were growing up, I was so tied to the images of my ancestors in my head. In my house there was no proper African art for my children to see. I wanted them to have the benefit of whatever I had when I was growing up. They went to every museum imaginable in this city but at the end of it, you had to leave the pieces there because there was nothing you could take home. So I started to look for things to take home to put on the walls that I had while growing up. I looked around all over the city and all I could find were art on the streets and I was so disappointed because these were African religious artifacts, they're royalty, for kings and objects of power, but they were being displayed on the ground. Also, there was nothing that I felt compelled enough to buy.
It was after fifteen years here that I had my first opportunity to go back home. I didn't go back before because I was raising my two children and I also had a sister living with me. I had three dependents to take care of with a teacher's salary, it was tough. My daddy got sick in Nigeria and they said he may not live longer, so I knew I had to go back.
Thank God credit cards came out then! I had to borrow money to go home to see daddy. When I went, I stayed with him. In African culture, you're supposed to take care of your parents. There are no elderly care homes. You live at home and die at home. My parents did everything they could for me when I was growing up, so it was only natural that I would be there for them. Up until today, that is one of my biggest regrets that I was not there for them. I couldn’t see his aging process so after fifteen years, he looked so different.
Before I returned to the United States, I went to the villages nearby and searched for art pieces to bring back. The desire was welling up in me to find good art pieces. I think there was an innate appreciation for art in me even when I was growing up through the stories that I'd heard. There are so many stories wrapped up in the art. Western Culture teaches that indigenous art is no good, and the first thing any religion teaches you is to destroy your own art. But I rebelled against that because I knew there were beautiful and meaningful art being created in the villages.
I went into the villages and I could not get enough. Thank God they didn't have the restrictions then that they have today for things you could bring into the country. I brought all of it home and put everything up. At Christmas, I would invite friends at that time and some of them were working in the UN. So, people from the UN came. My brother brought his friend and we were partying. All the while, people were so interested in the art and asked where I got it. They asked if they could have some of the art in my house and I said, "you've gotta be kidding me."
What gave you the desire to start something like this?
The desire came from having children and not being able to expose them to African works of art the way I was exposed. Growing up in the village, you had monuments and carved objects outside. If you went to people's home, you would see art pieces mounted in the verandah - they were called verandah pieces. When I went to the village, I was surrounded by all of that. When I came back, the best I could do was put the images in my home so my kids could relate to it. But in the seventies and eighties, there wasn't any African art gallery. You just had museums where you could view but not take art pieces home. So, once I went home and saw the opportunity, I started bringing more over. People would start coming to my home and get very excited.
I thought that maybe there was a business in this - where people really hungered for this and would want to take home the art that I had. I started with my family, got a little bit of money together, and then went back to Nigeria to buy some pieces and at the same time, started looking for space. To get a space, first as a woman, then as a first-time business owner, was extremely difficult. But the ancestors were with us, God was with us, and the universe was with us. We found a space in West Village, of all places. Our first store was on West 4th. After the lease ran out, we went to Perry Street. Between West 4th and Perry Street, we were around for sixteen years until the economy really collapsed. People really liked our approach, connecting African life to the art world, as opposed to the big galleries that would just splurge big sums of money. When they came to our gallery, we explained to the customers everything that they were getting, especially the culture. We had music, parties, and people loved it.
Then 9/11 came. Every business in the West Village was decimated because that's where it happened. We all congregated in front of our store, all the girls you know, and we could see the black fumes downtown. Most people didn't recover. People went out of business, they filed for bankruptcy. But because of the strength and the resolve of our customers who supported us regardless, we were able to pull through. Eventually we had to leave the village because the designer brands came in - Ralph Lauren, Marc Jacobs and they began buying up all the stores. Little stores like ours, we couldn't compete with those people. So we eventually moved to a space on 25th Street.
I think the reason why we were successful was because when I buy things, I didn't buy to please anybody. I bought what the tradition required. They didn't particularly look pleasing to the eye and some of them even looked ferocious. Unless you were an avid collector or knew a lot about African art, what we sold may not have appealed to you. My competitors would like to turn things over quickly. They bought cheaper things or more visually pleasing things so that people would buy those and turn things over. But that wasn’t me, I bought items that I felt were traditional and that showed hallmarks of African tradition.
How did you keep in touch with your African/Nigerian roots?
I think it's my upbringing. There are many Africans that don't want anything to do with their culture. I met an African man who worked at the UN who visited me in the Village one time with three boys and they were outside the gallery looking in. I came out and beckoned them in but the man was very hesitant. I asked him if he had any African art at home and he said no. So I said at least to let his boys come in to play with the drums and he looked at me like I was mad.
It's really what my parents did and how they raised us. All my siblings and I have African names. In my time, before you named a child, the child had to be about four months old. During those four months, you had to observe to see what characteristics the baby had because the name had to be meaningful. So during those months, there were certain things that happened that showed my parents that I was my father's mother reincarnated. So my father would say that I was like his mother in a previous life. The community had to concur during the naming process and they affirmed him so they named me Nnennaya, which means, "my mother come back to me".
What do you think helped you to fit in here successfully?
I’ve lived here for forty-four years. Our parents prepared us to live with other people. Somehow they knew the world was not just gonna be Africa for us, and that we were going to commingle with other people. Don't ask me how they knew but they prepared us for it. For example, when I was growing up, I wore native clothes. That's what my mother wore. She probably never wore a skirt or blouse in her life, just her native clothes. But when we were growing up, if we were going to a party, we could either be dressed in native clothes or dressed in a skirt and a blouse. We were the first generation to wear Western clothes.
Africans are the least judgmental people, especially with outsiders. They might have their little squabbles but to outsiders, whatever you bring is what they take. They don't judge you. That prepares you to look and accept at other cultures. You keep your own but you accept other people. As long as you don't want me to live your lifestyle or try to indoctrinate me. I don't care if you're green or red, it doesn't bother me. And I think it's good and bad because that's why Africans are taken advantage of, because they're so accepting and hospitable to outsiders. But I'm at a place here where I have friendships that are going on almost twenty-four years now. They can't do without me and I can't do without them either. We email or we talk, or they come to see what's new. So, you learn to adapt. And I eat here everything here, this is New York City.
What did you struggle with in your time here and how did you deal with it?
In the seventies and eighties, when I was doing my work, I suffered what most female executives suffer - the glass ceiling. You couldn't move past a certain line. That was true for me and for many female executives. But I think that was even more magnified because this country, as everybody knows, was founded with racial prejudice. People were not so accepting and they usually had the power to advance you or not. What most women suffered in the seventies and eighties is a known fact. You couldn't go above to the top jobs.
We all have our struggles with living in America but we all love it at the end of the day. There really is no place like it. But, when I talked about the jobs that I did in the past, I took jobs that other people didn't want and still made it work. That's how I feel I was raised. You can't start something and not see it to the end. Except that here they say "work hard" and that's for everybody. But if you're female and black and African, I feel you have to work hard ten times harder. Are you able to work hard ten times harder? If you can work ten times harder, go for it. There are so many obstacles but if you can withstand those obstacles, go for it. So it's perseverance and knowing exactly who you are.
And that takes me right back to Africa. Because there was so much love and care for me. What I'm telling you may sound strange because people don't hold Africa in the highest regard but you have to see that when poor people from Africa come to this country, that's tough on everybody and they still survive. What makes them survive? In my opinion, what makes them survive is the people around them that give them strength. What has kept me going and brought me this far, and this is not an easy business to be in, is strength and the people around me. If you're strong ten times, persist ten times (and ten times may be a low figure, you might have to go even higher), if you believe in yourself ten times, and you gather people around you that will encourage you, that will pull you up and find a way for you, you just might make it.
What are some things that are missing in this country that exist in Nigeria?
We have music here which is wonderful. But it is kind of compartmentalized. Here if I start singing, God forbid you know, you will have to cover your ears or something because the voice is not trained. Back home you don't have to, you start singing and before you know it, everyone is singing. There is power in that, empowering you. Here you start singing, people shut you down.
Where does that come from?
I think because we just had each other. I’m talking about when I was growing up, people just had each other. I remember all our neighbors, we just went in their house whenever we wanted. If you go to the village today, people still treat you the same. I remember when I went back home for the first time after fifteen years and I was jetlagged. At 6am, my mom tells me that somebody is here to see me. But I was too tired so I fell back asleep. My mom came back and started shaking my bed. So finally I came out and I saw this old wrinkled woman, nothing but wrinkles and smiles. She sees me and hugs me. She was up since four in the morning so that she could take a big lorry to my house just because she heard I came. She took a big lorry, not the most comfortable thing, came two hours to the city and walked to the house just because I came. She hugged me and wouldn't let go. And when she let go, she started bringing out gifts for me, here and there, whatever she remembered that I liked.
She asked if I remembered her and I said no. But she remembered everything about me - where I ate, where I went. And she went out and somebody else came in and it was the same thing. By the time I returned to America, I felt like I was massaged with kindness. So that's what I grew up with. It makes you someone with largesse because you've been given everything - kindness and time by people who really mattered. So you're compelled to extend it to others.
What is your hope for your children in terms of what you wish to leave them as far as holding on to your history and culture?
Thank God my kids are just like me. However I was raised, I tried to do the same for them. Their names are Igbo names. I remember I went to the daycare center and as kids do, they started making fun of my children’s names. My children would waver on their names but I told them never to waver on their names because then they would forget who they were. Ever since then, they have never wavered on their name. They feel very strongly about Africa because I feel very strongly about Africa. They love the same things I love. I'm grateful I could give them a good foundation about African culture.
What I need to leave to them, I've already left to them - the legacy of being an African with all that goes with it. Most importantly, be kind to yourself. Because when you're kind to yourself, you're kind to others. Be open-minded, pursue your dreams, whatever they are, go for it. Don't let go, don't look back now. So I think looking at them today, I think I've reached my goal with them.
Know someone you think should be featured? Send an email to email@example.com