When spoken-word artist Asia Rainey was on tour in Cincinnati, she was impressed by a building that provided arts for adolescents.
“It blew me away,” she said. “It had nothing but recording studios, dance, and art spaces for teens. I thought, ‘How could we do that here in New Orleans?’”
Seeing entrepreneurial markets in Istanbul and New York City further inspired Rainey. Then last fall, she helped with a wildly popular pop-up weekend arts market.
“It became more and more apparent that we needed to think about a retail space,” Rainey said.
On Saturday, Rainey, 41, officially opened her version of that ideal arts space, the Oya! Market, in a renovated building next door to the Healing Center on St. Claude Avenue.
Neighbors sometimes call the storefront “the old Dollar General.” But the space has been transformed into an arts complex with an interior to match.
After construction crews ripped out 1970s-era dropped ceilings, Oya! Market was left with lofty 12-foot ceilings lined with original tin tiles. In the front, behind plate-glass windows, a retail store is stocked with handcrafted jewelry, clothing, natural and local beauty products like Makeba’s Magnificents and other items made by the 50-artist Oya! nonprofit collaborative led by Rainey.
An iPad listening kiosk with headphones offers a chance to preview independent artists’ music and poetry. A table offers desserts made by community bakers, along with drinks like the locally brewed hibiscus tea Bissap Breeze.
To the youngest Oya! member, Rahsaan Ison, 16, who sells his bowties in the market, the collaborative reflects New Orleans culture.
“Oya! shows the community is still alive and that people care for the community’s art,” he said.
To walk from the market to the back of the building requires walking through a few doorways, including one that was clearly created by a sledgehammer, swung artistically through a brick wall. Rainey loves its uneven edges. “I refuse to level it out,” she said. “I call it ‘the portal.’”
At the rear of the building, exposed-brick walls create an intimate, 847-square-foot performance space for community theater, dance, music or open-mic nights by the local spoken-word crowd that is like Rainey’s extended family.
Rainey, who managed local clubs and restaurants for 12 years, is taking pains with the acoustics. “I’ve seen too many places in the city where the venue is beautiful but the sound is awful,” she said.
Over the stage stands an arresting image of the building’s namesake, Oya, painted by Joe Parker, an arts partner in the collaborative.
Oya is a Yoruba deity, also known as the Mother of Nine, for the nine tributaries of the Niger River, which she is said to have created. So, the building’s performance space has been dubbed The Nine.
A hallway lined with rooms between the market and The Nine include smaller spaces for massage therapists and other personal-service partners. A larger, airy meeting room will be equipped with all the latest electronic necessities needed to conduct classes or workshops, like those that Rainey now leads in creative writing through her educational nonprofit, WordPlay New Orleans. Because Oya is a nonprofit, all spaces will be rented “equitably,” Rainey said.
Even as construction began earlier this year, the space became a magnet, as artists stopped through to see Rainey, drop off new work, check out the space or meet other members of the collaborative. Some brought rugs that the store needed. Others, including one with department-store experience, created stunning window displays. And last week, photographer Clifton Faust came in with a circular saw and built a stage for The Nine, which will be hung with original local art. “It’s starting to feel like a community center,” said Rainey. To her, that’s ideal.
“We want it to feel like it’s an extension of the neighborhood,” Rainey said. “We want it to be the artsy place, the place. We want people to stop by for a massage, pick up some cute earrings, and stay for a performance.”
On a recent morning, Rainey walked through the portal and into The Nine, where a neatly finished stage now stands, below Parker’s Oya painting. She looked around and liked what she saw. “I just want to sit here and write a poem,” she said.