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First look at the new Africa Centre: London’s iconic home of African excellence reopens in Southwark

The historic organisation has been without a permanent home for a decade - at last it has one worth its heritage

Nancy DurrantCulture Editor
08 June 2022

rchbishop Desmond Tutu. Anti-Apartheid politician and revolutionary Oliver Tambo. The musicians Jazzie B, Miriam Makeba, Angélique Kidjo and Youssou N’Dour; the writers Alice Walker, Ben Okri and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie... The list of visitors to London’s pioneering Africa Centre over the years makes for seriously impressive reading.

Kenneth Kaunda - then the newly elected leader of newly independent Zambia - opened its Covent Garden building in 1964. Artists Sonia Boyce, who last month won the Golden Lion at the Venice Biennale after years of teaching and making work without gallery representation, and Lubaina Himid, who aged 68 finally has a solo exhibition at Tate Modern right now, both showed at the centre back in 1983 alongside Claudette Johnson, Houria Niati and Veronica Ryan in a show entitled Five Black Women. In its earliest days, it served as a co-ordination point for voices of liberation during independence struggles across the continent; now for nearly 60 years the Africa Centre has served as a cultural hub for the African diaspora in London and a flagship for Africa in Europe.

Recent years have not been without their troubles. In 2012, the board having come to the decision that maintaining it had become unsustainable, the building on King Street was sold (leasehold; the Centre retains the freehold) to developers - a decision not without its fierce opponents, among whom Archbishop Tutu, Wole Soyinka and Yinka Shonibare were just a few of the more prominent names. Covid, too, put a spanner in the works, the crisis triggering a major management restructure that meant losing the then CEO of two years, Kenneth Olumuyiwa Tharp, along with the head of fundraising, Jess Mortlock.

Not, however, before they had been able to help secure £1.6 million from the Mayor of London’s Good Growth Fund for the new capital project that visitors will, at last, be able to see from tomorrow - a gorgeous new permanent home for the Africa Centre on Great Suffolk Street in Southwark, a mere ten minutes walk from Tate Modern on the Southbank, or from the Old (and Young) Vic on The Cut in the opposite direction.

The project was awarded £1.6m from the Mayor of London’s Good Growth Fund

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As I gingerly pick my way through what is, when I visit (with one week to go), still essentially a building site, the Centre’s board chair Oba Nsugbe points out considered design details that are intended to mark the space as unmistakably African - earthy colours of sand, terracotta and ochre echoing construction materials and landscapes across the continent; deep indigo walls, as you rise through the building, evoking the dye that forms the basis of textile traditions across West Africa.

90 per cent of the design objects in the building (light fittings, furniture, that sort of thing) have been sourced from African designers and makers. From what I can ascertain (and like I said, with one week to go it is, naturally, a bit of a building site) it does have a strikingly different feel from most of London’s cultural spaces - there’s a warmth to it that is rarely matched in any but the most self-consciously Scandi of those interiors.

“I think it’s important to not just fall into the same mindset,” Nsugbe tells me, standing in the event space on the building’s second floor, which will be predominantly used to stage exhibitions and is (and this may come as a surprise to the first artist to be shown there, the fast-rising Tanzanian painter Sungi Mlengeya) also entirely indigo blue.

“Our interior designer [Tola Ojuolape] was quite adamant and persuasive,” the Centre’s chief marketing and communications officer, Belvin Tawuya, adds, “and we went along with it - it’s a way of challenging stereotypes, of course, and being bold and trying something different.”

“It challenges, because you come in and you know, you might be expecting a white space,” says Nsugbe. “People definitely will remember it!” he laughs.

The new Centre, transformed by architecture practice Freehaus, will have a welcoming ground floor housing a pan-African restaurant and bar run by rising star Akwasi Brenya-Mensa’s popular supper club Tatale, while the mural that was painted on the wall of the Covent Garden building by the artist Malangatana has been painstakingly removed, conserved and reinstalled here.

Desmond Tutu used to drink with Thabo Mbeki in the original bar

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The first floor will be another bar, for hanging around on extremely covetable chairs and/or networking - an essential echo of the original centre, where Tutu used to meet Thabo Mbeki for a drink; the second will house the events and gallery space, with reconfigurable dividing walls to make it as flexible as possible on the not-particularly-large footprint they’re working within (it is in central London, after all). They will continue the Centre’s longstanding work of showcasing African and African-heritage artists - an area in which, let’s face it, though nearby Tate has vastly improved its holdings in recent years, the Africa Centre can still thrash the bigger gallery for representation. FWIW, I think Mlengeya’s monochrome paintings, which use negative space to shine a light on blackness and womanhood, will look absolutely stunning on those inky walls.

In addition to art the space will house a programme of talks, discussions and performances - the opening weekend events include a discussion around the legacy of Malangatana (his daughter will be in attendance, and it’s hoped that his niece, who is a high priestess, will bless the mural); a tour of the new space with a chance to grill the architects and designers who have created it, and a session on Afrobeat, on how the people making it can shape the story of the music as it rapidly heads into the global mainstream. There’s also a clothing customisation workshop with the artist Emmanuel Unaji, and I think it would be rude to miss the jolloff cook-off on Saturday afternoon.

That’s as far as the funding will stretch at the moment, but the plan is for the third and fourth floors to, eventually, become an education and learning and a business centre respectively. The Africa Centre is for everyone of course - it will need to attract a variety of locals and visitors from across London’s communities to keep it running, though if they get the restaurant right that shouldn’t be too hard - but it’s also unequivocally a place for the African-Caribbean diaspora of London, and Londoners and Brits who share that heritage. So what will this new iteration of the venerable organisation do for those people? What do they need and want?

”What we're finding is that they definitely need an area where they can be together,” Nsugbe says. “And they also need to upskill. Lots want to become entrepreneurs, so they need the financial skills improving, they need to learn about how to run businesses, they need to learn about products, how they protect their businesses, copyright - all of these things.” The Centre already provides affordable co-working space on a membership basis in the arches behind the new building (a 1960s office block). Now young people of African heritage in London are realising, he says, “that they have strong cultural capital”. Music, dance and fashion, “it's all African,” Nsugbe says.

90 per cent of the design objects in the building have been sourced from across Africa

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“So what they are working towards is owning that capital, rather than lending it out. And it's very important that the Africa Centre can be one of those spaces where they can learn how to own their own capital - collectively or individually, and share ideas.” The centre will offer masterclasses by successful members of the diaspora who have done it before.

As Tawuya puts it in relation to the forthcoming Afrobeat event, “It's about owning those narratives or creating platforms where we could facilitate these conversations. Because if we don't do it, it's going to happen elsewhere, and it might be distorted. We want the Africa Center to be the place where these conversations can take place, where they can be curated, but we are taking the leading role.”

The Africa Centre has big ambitions, but it’s a tiny organisation (Arts Council England funded the purchase of the new building). Everything needs to be a collaboration, a co-production, but for partners in Africa, says Nsugbe, the centre is “an immediate conduit to a much larger global space. Immediately you go through us, to London, and then out from there. And there's there's a strength in working with fellow Africans that are on a journey which is not dissimilar to ours,” he says, referring to people of African-Caribbean heritage in Britain.

“We may be going in slightly different directions but we're on parallel lines. We've got different imperatives, but we meet in a sort of common understanding that we have to progress, we have to achieve, we have to showcase - we have to be excellent in what we do.”

By doing that, he says, “we change the narrative. Because you know all about the narrative. It's like, oh, it's an African joint, it will fail. And it should be no, it's an African joint - it's excellent. It's got pride. It's got colour; it's got light. It's got organisation; it's got resources. And so that's, for us, challenging the narrative. It's about actually saying, we've got a really strong cultural capital. Please come and take a look at it, and work with us, and we can be much stronger.”

The Africa Centre opens on June 9,

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