The Africa Centre – home at last

Turbulent years followed its departure from Covent Garden, but the ‘face of Africa’ now has an impressive new HQ, writes Angela Cobbinah

Thursday, 16th June — By Angela Cobbinah

Africa Centre_Oba Nsugbe (r) introducing artist Sungi Mlengeya (middle) at launch

Oba Nsugbe introducing artist Sungi Mlengeya at launch of The Africa Centre on June 9

AFTER being without a permanent home for more than a decade, the Africa Centre unveiled its new premises last week. Based in Covent Garden for almost 50 years where it achieved almost legendary status as the “face of Africa”, its new HQ now occupies a beautifully transformed 1960s office block in Southwark.

Black and sleek on the outside and all brightness within, it comprises four floors and includes a snazzy gallery space, bar and restaurant set amid hues and furnishings that evoke Africa. There are also two refurbished railway arches at the rear of the building separated by an alleyway.

“We have come home and it is overwhelming,” Oba Nsugbe, chair of the board of trustees, said to applause at its opening. “A heartfelt and soulful welcome. It is such a great feeling for us to have people in our space. Let it be for ever.”

A mural by Mozambican artist Malangatana Ngwenya that was originally installed in its former premises now has pride of place here, a symbolic link between past and present, and one of several striking art works scattered around the building. Upstairs, [Un]Choreographed, an exhibition by up-and-coming Tanzanian artist Sungi Mlengeya, reaffirms the organisation’s mission to showcase contemporary African art and culture.

The new Africa Centre brings to an end a troubled 10 years that followed the controversial sale of its one-time base at 38 King Street, just around the corner from Covent Garden Piazza.

Opened in 1964 by Zambian president Kenneth Kaunda as a reflection of the spirit of the early independence era in Africa, it was a place where politics, art, music and food seamlessly converged to create a home from home, famous for its lively dances, Calabash restaurant – for a long time the only African eatery in central London – and groundbreaking programme of book launches, talks and exhibitions.

Soundman Jazzie B, novelist Alice Walker, Ghanaian artist Ablade Glover and Congolese musician Papa Wemba are just a few of the names that have been on its stage. It was also a regular haunt of exiled members of southern African liberation movements and chosen as the venue where Nelson Mandela’s statement from behind prison bars on Robben Island was read out to the world.

The new headquarters after a troubled 10 years

Despite its historic footprint, the Africa Centre fell into financial difficulties and in 2011 the board of trustees decided that the cost of maintaining its crumbling 18th-century building was too burdensome.

Furious opposition from the likes of Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka and Archbishop Desmond Tutu – two former Africa Centre “alumni” – as well as an alternative refurbishment plan put forward by the “Save Africa Centre” campaign, failed to halt the proposed sale to property magnates Capco.

The idea was to buy a new building elsewhere in the West End with the £10.5million proceeds. But this quickly proved out of reach due to the ballooning property market.

A hoped for move into the Royal Commonwealth Society near Trafalgar Square fell through and the Africa Centre was forced to use the Rich Mix community arts hub in Shoreditch as a temporary base, launching the first of its lavish free music festivals in Covent Garden Piazza to keep its name alive.

The Africa Centre then began renting premises south of river in Great Suffolk Street and although it gamely soldiered on it looked as though its glory days were well and truly behind it.

However, the board managed to secure £1.6million in funding from Arts Council England, which was used to purchase the building, plus a £1.6million grant from the Mayor of London’s Good Growth Fund to redevelop it.

Two years ago, newly elected chair Nsugbe unveiled the vision for a rejuvenated Africa Centre that would honour its “rich history” and safeguard its future. “It is a legacy we are immensely proud of,” he said at the time. “We are acutely aware of its iconic status. It is something that resonates with all of us trustees.”

The new HQ, he added, would be “bold and confident. It will house young people, old people. All lovers of Africa will congregate and commune in our building”.

Although lacking the palatial grandeur and space of its one time Grade ll-listed home, 66 Great Suffolk Street is smart enough to host visiting VIPs, as of old, and stylish enough to serve as a hang-out for a younger crowd. A library and digital centre is on its way, with a focus on youth, as well as a business suite for lectures and conferences.

Above all, the Africa Centre is here to stay. While Covent Garden lost a piece of its history in return for yet another upmarket emporium, Southwark has gained a promising addition to the fashionable enclave that has emerged out of the industrial streetscape associated with the railways at nearby Waterloo and Blackfriars.

Africa Centre, 66 Great Suffolk Street, SE1 0BL

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