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Arts Activism
Photographer helps orphans, artists work to save venue and more

Striking a chord for Ethiopiaís HIV-positive orphans

Bio-medical photographer James Merchant likes to share his passions. His latest is Precious Angel International, an organization he and Melissa King, a co-worker at Burlingtonís Lahey Clinic, established after a life-changing visit to Ethiopia last year.

Another of Merchantís passions is music. "Iíve always been a fan of Bob Morley and Rastafarian culture," the Arlington resident explains. "So when my friend Sarah Mars of the Wide Horizons for Children international adoption agency said she was going, I had to join her." With the support of the Lahey, co-workers, and others, Merchant took $4000 to $5000 in medical supplies with him.

And what did he find? "The overwhelming poverty was stunning." So was the population of orphans. There are roughly 1.7 million in Ethiopia; many lost their parents to AIDS. But the transforming experience for Merchant was visiting an Addis Ababa orphanage run by Catholic nuns where 212 HIV-positive children were packed into a space intended for 45. "The children asked the nuns questions like ĎWhy wonít I grow up?í and ĎWill you leave me in the ground at the top of the hill some day like you did my friend?í The smallest children were crammed three or four to a crib. One girl was so ill, she didnít have the strength to brush a cockroach from her face. If I didnít photograph surgical procedures for a living, I might not have had the stomach for it."

As if that werenít heart-rending enough, a three-year-old girl attached herself to Merchant while he toured the site. "I could tell from holding her hand that she was burning up with fever, and she dripped with sweat as she led me around. But as sick as she was, she was just so happy to have the attention of an adult for an hour. At the end, as she waved goodbye to me, I felt like Iíd never see her again. It was just mind-melting. So she became the Precious Angel. The magnitude of the situation is just too much to cope with, but I thought that if I could focus on that one little girl, it might not be so overwhelming and I might be able to help ease the suffering of at least some of these children."

Merchant and King established Precious Angel this March to raise awareness, medicine, and funds for the care of Ethiopiaís HIV-positive orphans and their older siblings who ó though often not yet in their teens themselves ó are raising their ill younger brothers and sisters. Now heís found a way to combine his musical and his humanitarian interests. Inspired by the success of Precious Angelís first fundraising concert at the Arlington Regent Theatre last May and his discovery of a pristine Fender Stratocaster at a yard sale, heís begun collecting the autographs of local and national musicians on the instrument, which he plans to auction or raffle off. So far, Jay Geils, Howliní Wolf guitarist Hubert Sumlin, Boston (the band) singer Brad Delp, blues-guitarist Kid Bangham, folk star Kris Delmhorst, NYC blues man Popa Chubby, folk songsmith Chris Smither, guitarist David Goodrich, and local harp hero Jim Fitting have signed the six-string. "As soon as Iíve mentioned what the cause is, all of the musicians have responded instantly. Thereís a lot more space on the guitar, and Iím planning to get it covered with names."

Although he and King are always scouting for donations for food, clothing, medicine, and, ultimately, to build a new orphanage, Precious Angel is also planning another major fundraising concert in May 2004, again at the Regent, where the guitar may be sold. "Itís hard to believe the desperation of the famine and the HIV epidemic thatís still raging in Ethiopia, because the media has decided itís sexier to cover wars with their bombs and explosions than a slowly unfolding tragedy. But I knew after experiencing it first-hand that if I didnít do something, Iíd lose my mind."

Precious Angel International can be reached at www.precious-angel.org or by writing to Box 1302, Burlington 01803.

-Ted Drozdowski

Welcome back, Berwick; so long, Allston Cinema

"The Berwick is alive and well," says Meg Rotzel, the executive director of the Berwick Research Institute. Back in July, the experimental art and performance space at 14 Palmer Street in Roxbury was forced into hiatus when the Boston Inspectional Services Department and a couple of Boston cops showed up at a Saturday-night concert and cited the converted bakery warehouse as being in violation of a slew of building codes. Since then, the landlord has been working to get the building into code compliance, but the Berwick is still forbidden to house performances. The occasion allowed the board members to step back and ask how they were running the organization and how they wanted to continue.

"In actuality," says Rotzel, "itís really difficult to run a venue the way we were. Itís a lot of time and effort for an all-volunteer staff." In the months before it was closed, the Berwick, which is funded by the private, culture/arts-supporting LEF Foundation and other private donors, drew a growing audience to its concerts and art events, but the staff was getting tired. The mandatory pause in activities has given it a new sense of purpose and a renewed commitment to the Berwick. What happened, Rotzel admits, "wasnít a blessing, because I really miss seeing an audience consistently ó and it was growing ó but thereís definitely a silver lining propelling us into a future that has made us think about the fundamentals of why we started the space."

And those fundamentals involve being a space that supports artists whose work exists outside the commercial economy, providing those artists with a venue, the means of support (a stipend and time), a sense of community, and a critical audience. Rotzel explains that the projects the Berwick supported ó a non-commercial low-watt radio station, experimental composition, a robot ó cannot be sold. "We want to support artists who arenít finding the money, time, and community to get what they want done."

The Berwick provides this support with its artist-in-research (AIR) program, which has continued to operate in a low-profile way during the regrouping. Residency applications are being accepted through January, and the new AIR artists will be announced the first week of April. Each residency lasts two months, and the Berwick hosts five per year. The current artist-in-research is Christy Georg, whose work examines "the occurrence of the elusive Ďpresentí moment" using sound, performance, sculpture, and video. Rotzel says that the AIR fills a void in the Boston arts scene. "The Gardner Museum has a residence, but itís for blue-chip artists. There are no urban places for people to do the kind of work we support." As a result, the Berwick is getting a lot of interest from both local and international artists.

Itís also looking to increase its involvement in the community. ACT Roxbury, an organization that seeks to enhance and revitalize Dudley Squareís economic, physical, and social surroundings through art and culture, is creating what Rotzel calls "an arts non-profit incubator building" in the former Hibernia Hall at 184 Dudley Street, and the Berwick hopes to collaborate on that. "Iím really excited about Hibernia Hall. Itíll allow a lot of non-profits to work together and share resources. Weíll be able to support our artists even more."

What the Berwick doesnít plan on continuing is its rock shows. These events have included performances by Lovewhip, Neptune, Deerhoof, and Manifesto Jukebox. Rotzel cites the licensing restrictions as well as the time commitment that booking shows demanded. But that doesnít mean they wonít be presenting multimedia events. "Rock shows, artwork, dance, performance, and general merrymaking and enjoyment of the world should all go hand in hand. So much art is sectioned off into separate corners, and they donít get to have a good time together. Or at least, thatís the way it seems in this town." At the Berwick, on the other hand, she wants "all the mediums all the time to always be working together."

For further information about the Berwick Research Institute, visit www.berwickinstitute.org. To find out more about applying for or helping to support the residency program, e-mail Meg Rotzel at meg@berwickinstitute.org

WHEREAS THE BERWICK HAS REVIVED, the Allston Cinema, a local bastion of underground, cult, kung fu, and Bollywood films, is going away for good. Staples, the Framingham-based office-supply behemoth, has bought the Allston Cinema building, which is flanked by Dunkiní Donuts next door and TJ Maxx down the block, with plans to tear it down and open a 14,000-square-foot Staples store; construction is scheduled to start in March, according to the Allstonís manager, Garo Nigoghossian. "Itís going to make the street look like a strip mall." A spokesperson for Staples confirmed the sale and construction plans.

The most recent casualty of the Allston Cinemaís screening history was Allston Cinema Underground, which was run by the Coolidge Cornerís Clinton McClung. After showing all manner of independent and underground films, from a series of rock-and-roll movies to antique French porn, the Underground folded last month because of the rising costs of running the theater and diminishing returns.

The Allston opened in the í70s, and for many years it was owned by Showcase Cinemas and used for Cleveland Circle Cinema castoffs. In September of last year, it became home to Allston Bombay Cinema 2, which screens first-run Bollywood films as well as "Kung-Fu Mania Ass Kicking Wednesdays," which Nigoghossian runs. The next string of classic kung fu flicks comprises Peacock King on December 3, Robotrix on December 10, and Devil Fetus on December 17. And Nigoghossian plans to continue showing films until the place is torn down, at the very least until February. After that, heíll transplant his ass kickings to occasional weekend-midnight screenings at the Coolidge.

"Thatís just how it goes," he laments. "When big business steps in, anything cool has to step aside."

The Allston Cinema is located at 214 Harvard Avenue, in Allston. For further information, call (617) 912-8626, or visit www.allstoncinema.org

- Nina MacLaughlin


Issue Date: November 21 - 27, 2003
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