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London’s Africa Centre reborn

Diaspora

London’s Africa Centre reborn

The historic Africa Centre, for decades an iconic cultural landmark in London’s Covent Garden area, opened to the public again in its swanky new headquarters building in the UK capital’s culture-heavy Southwark. A glittering array of visitors attended the official opening on 9 June as celebrations went on for four days. Ishara Callan provides the highlights.

Among the hundreds of people who attended the official reopening of London’s Africa Centre on 9 June were previous directors and trustees of the Centre, leaders of peer organisations, community groups, members of the public and representatives of some African High Commissions. 

Notable guests included multi-medium artist Yinka Shonibare, CBE RA; novelist Chibundu Onuzo; sculptor Sokari Douglas Camp, CBE; and the director of Tate Modern, Frances Morris. 

The Chair of the Board of Trustees, Oba Nsugbe QC opened proceedings with greetings and a warm welcome. This was followed by rousing keynote speeches from the Deputy Mayor of London, Jules Pipe, Lord Paul Boateng, and Pumela Salela, UK Country Head for Brand South Africa.

The guest of honour was Sonia Boyce OBE RA, whose relationship with The Africa Centre goes back almost 40 years to when she was part of the Five Black Women exhibition (alongside Lubaina Himid, Claudette Johnson, Houria Niati and Veronica Ryan) in 1983. She cut the ribbon alongside Lord Boateng.

The speeches were followed by an historic moment, the unveiling of a mural by the late Mozambican artist, Malangatana Valente Ngwenya. The mural has special significance as it was originally painted as a gift in the old Africa Centre building in Covent Garden in 1987.

When The Africa Centre began its relocation process in 2013, the mural was carefully removed and kept in storage before going through full restoration and once again taking pride of place in the new building. Malangatana’s family and members of the Mozambican community were present to conduct a ceremony as part of the unveiling.

In the evening, there was a VIP reception for the first artist to showcase in The Africa Centre’s new gallery – Uganda-based Tanzanian artist Sungi Mlengeya.  

Her first solo exhibition outside Africa, (Un)choreographed pays homage to the vivid history of dance and the myriad ways that dance creates liberation for women across Africa and its Diaspora. Curated by Tammi Bello and Jessica Lowe-Mbirimi, Mlengeya’s exhibition unveils eight striking large-scale paintings that radiate energy and celebrate the agency and power of their Black women subjects.

Bold design

A beneficiary of the Mayor of London’s Good Growth Fund, The Africa Centre secured a £1.6m grant in 2018, towards the redevelopment of its new home. It is located in Southwark, the cultural heartbeat of London, only walking distance from other iconic cultural centres such as the Tate Modern, the V&A, the Young and Old Vic theatres and the Southbank Centre. 

The Africa Centre’s new home (66-68 Great Suffolk Street, London SE1) sits in a former 1960s office block that has been transformed into the most welcoming cultural venue in London. The building is painted all black on the outside and the interiors are an outburst of colours – from the fierce orange of a setting sun in Africa and earthy ochre to gentle soft greens. 

Explaining the vision, Oba Nsugbe, Board Chair, The Africa Centre, said: “The admirable work of architects Freehaus, turned a nondescript office building into a thing of beauty with its bold black design with strips of bright patterning that is synonymous with various African cultures.” 

He added: “The four-storey place is filled with paintings and craftwork from African designers. Even lighting, textiles and chairs are sourced from the continent. Tola Ojuolape, who led the interior design, came up with swish contemporary African looks, such as the natty bar networking area at the Centre.” 

Momentous occasion

Belvin Tawuya, The Africa Centre’s Communications Director, said: “This was a momentous occasion in the history of our organisation. A perfect opportunity to reflect on our past and pay homage to those who helped to shape The Africa Centre into what is today. 

“However,” he added, “our success and sustainability depend on our ability to create space at the table for a younger generation with different but exciting perspectives. The Africa Centre remains a home away from home and we will be working hard to raise that awareness, particularly amongst millennials and Gen-Z, through engaging and relevant programmes.”

Celebrations were spread over four days and each day was packed with activities aligned with the charity’s mission to educate, connect, and advocate for Africa and its diaspora.

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