Creating Dignified Employment for People Living with HIV/AIDS into the New Millennium
You can find them there, "Lions and tigers but no bears -- Oh my!" - metal crocodiles too and exotic birds, together with ancient and young faces carved out of wood, and a lot of other stuff besides. It's Africa -- Africa on Main Street Middletown.
As a writer and illustrator I'm always interested in a story: One morning as I walked the long corridor of the Main Street Market on my way to breakfast at Ford News I realized that something was happening there. In a small, unoccupied part of the Market, gradually, a new shop was taking shape. I stopped to watch the labor of a quiet gentleman who worked diligently; slowly he was turning the small alcove into a glimpse of the "dark continent."
Each day someting new was added until you began to feel the very soul of Africa itself. I could almost hear the cries of hyenas in the night and the sound of owls prowling for their evening sustenance.
In many of the carved figures I marvelled as I found a sense of life, through dance and motion, in the fluid designs that the artists had used to convert stone into something more -- much more. In many of the human figures I sensed the importance to the artist of the family, and children, all working harmoniously: a dream perhaps, but one worth striving for . . .
When the shop was opened it was, indeed, a bit of Africa, with much of the mystery and charm of that continent. I stopped one morning to introduce myself to the founder and storekeeper, Norman Bishop.
"What can you tell me about this place?," I asked, "This is, indeed, an interesting shop. How did it come about?"
"That's a long story," replied Norm, "Do you have time?"
"Not now, but I'll be back," I replied.
Several weeks went by until I took an afternoon when the weather was 98 degrees in the shade to bring my camera and tape recorder, to visit, shoot photos and cajole Norm into telling me some of his stories. It didn't take much convincing to get him going as this was his "child."
"What you see here," said Norm, "Is sculpture produced by African artists,who sell their work to try and help themselves and their communities. There are whole villages in Africa at this time that are dying of the HIV/AIDS disease -- men, women and children too. Often they have no means of support. Here, through art, is one method that people can help them, at least in a small way.
"PBR (People's Back Room) a subsidary of Positive Solutions are in the business of being employment opportunities for people with HIV and AIDS. One of our board members Kwame Ocansey is from a town in Ghana named Kumasi. Kwame is in the process of putting together a free school in Kumasi as a means to help children escape the cycle of poverty. It's pretty obvious that children in that culture who are not affluent will never become anything. I helped Kumasi put together this non profit organization to build a "free school." for poor children. It started when myself and one of our board members, Steven Cremin-Endes, wanted to create a sister-city marriage between Middletown and some town in Africa for the specific purpose of dealing with the HIV epidemic.
So as a result of searching for a direction to go in we hit upon this idea of a shop to exchange information and ideas in order to find ways to help individuals with HIV/AIDS here and around the world. We wanted to find out exactly what the needs were of those folks over there, and how we could help them.
Lajiri communicates regularly via e-mail and has found that the folks in Africa can use almost everything: medical supplies, used bicycles, clothing, computers that are good enough to get on the Internet, and things like that. We needed to find a way to purchase some of that material or gather it. Once or twice a year we ship it over there. We thought that with exposure through this store we could communicate our ideas of how to help these people. Eventually we will help artists with HIV over there in Africa - those who have strength left - and have their sculptures shipped here for sale. So far we haven't received much, but we're working on that idea as a project.
Kwame was in Africa last month for three and a half weeks. He went to an artists community, a place like Greenwich Village, where artists congregate. None of the artists there would admit that they had AIDS; you would only find those folks, those who admitted they were sick, in the hospital. Right now we're getting most of our material from Stephen Loitz who is a direct importer. Stephen, who runs a gallery in Meriden called Shahona, is over in Africa now for a month. Now, all of the art that we have in this shop comes from Africa but, as I said, not necessarily from artists who are presently HIV.
I said to Norm, "My friend, it looks like you've put a lot of work and devotion into this shop. Where do you get all the energy?"
Norm: (laughter) "Sometimes I wonder at that myself, but I do get tired. One time I was working here on a Saturday; afterwards, I went first to the church, then to a carwash. I heard a tapping on my car window and found that I'd fallen asleep. The sound and rythm of the water had put me under and I was sitting at the end of the car wash, sound asleep. I don't know how long I'd been there but the kind folks just let me rest since there were no customers in back of me."
When customers came into the shop Norm got up and greeted them and asked if he could help them find anything in particular. I took that time to explore more of the magnificent carvings and objects of art in the shop. I've always been interested in Africa ever since I read studies such as "African Genesis," linking all of us to this birthplace of humankind. In a sense it appears that Africa is the cradle from which we all began many eons ago. Africa is the "Ghia" or Mother Earth.
I noticed that much of the artwork on display was signed by the individual artists with names like: Richare Macombe and Kundiyena and others. I wanted to know more about these artists.
As I was sitting at a small table in the hallway outside the shop, listening to Norm's story, the chairman of the board of Positive Solutions, Professor Charles Lemert of Wesleyan University, stopped by to show Norm some pictures he'd recently had developed of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee, where Martin Luther King had been shot. Norm and Charles spoke for a few moments about the loss of Martin Luther King and I listened to their recap of that sad event in history. It seemed to me that I was hearing one part of a conversation between two friends that had been going on over a long time. ..
Afterwards I continued browsing the shelves, enjoying the extensive artwork. In between customers, Norm gave me bits and pieces of stories about individual artists whose work was on the shelves. In that way we spent a pleasant afternoon with echos of distant lions and tigers faintly whispering from the gallery.
"I've got to come back Norm, and write down some of your stories. There are wondrous creatures here, these carvings and sculptures, but I'd like to know more about the artists who created them. Who are they? What do they look like? What are their stories?"
"You can come back," said Norm with a smile, ""I'll be here and you're
welcome any time . . . "
by RJ White - July 4, 2002 at the Main Street Market, Middletown, Ct.