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Northeastern University Tells African-American Artist Program To Vacate Space

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An artist collective affiliated with Northeastern University is being told by the school to vacate the Jamaica Plain warehouse where they work by July 13.

Members of the African-American Master Artists-in-Residence Program -- or AAMARP -- received a letter Thursday from the university’s facilities department saying their two floors of space would be closed because of increasing “safety and security concerns.”

The letter also cites building code violations -- including lights and movement after hours in a space not intended for residential use, and dividing walls made of flammable materials. Part of it reads:

Northeastern received an engineering report from an outside firm that lists significant structural, electrical, and other hazardous conditions that currently exist within the building; some of these conditions have been created/exacerbated by the occupants.

“Our goal here is to just make sure that people are safe and that everything is in compliance and that we don't have any kind of a tragedy whatsoever,” said Michael Armini, Northeastern's senior vice president of external affairs.

Armini added that “what's driving us now is not the future of arts or African-American arts at Northeastern ... This is solely about safety.”

When asked for response to the letter on Friday, the artists say they are not ready to comment yet and are working on building access issues and how to move forward with the university.

But Michael Dowling, director of Medicine Wheel, had something to say. He’s worked with many of the artists and is greatly distressed by the news about AAMARP’s pending dislocation.

“The artists have contributed to illuminate the artistic heritage of the African diaspora for two generations,” he wrote in an email, “its artists break down the barriers that divide us as people. The incubation space created there has allowed the artists and the art produced there to address some of the most urgent needs of our times.”

The AAMARP has been working together for more than 30 years, practicing in a variety of genres, often reflecting on and celebrating the African-American experience. Kofi Kayiga, a Jamaican-born artist and educator, has exhibited his folklore and religious-themed pieces around the world since the 1960s. Shea Justice often highlights lesser-known figures from black history, recently exploring actor Paul Robeson’s legacy through pen-and-ink drawings. Photojournalist Don West has captured images of Nelson Mandela’s visit to Boston. Marlon Forrester has employed basketball imagery and rituals into works to comment on how young men of color are perceived in society.

Armini, at Northeastern, said, “We're probably going to find a time to talk to the artists next week. We're happy to work out as amicable a resolution as we can, but safety trumps everything else.”

Many of the artists have shown locally at City Hall, Massachusetts College of Art and Design, Simmons College and Medicine Wheel’s Spoke Gallery in South Boston.

Andrea Shea Twitter Senior Arts Reporter
Andrea Shea is WBUR's arts reporter.

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