he historic Africa Centre, for decades an iconic cultural landmark in London’s Covent Garden area, reopened yesterday to the public after a multi-million pound refurbishment to its swank new home in Southwark, a short walk south of the Thames in London.
The Africa Centre was first established in an 18th century listed building in 1964 when Kenneth Kaunda, the President of Zambia at the time, led the inauguration. What started as a safe place for the African diaspora to meet, soon developed into an important point to support Africa’s liberation movements.
It became a home away from home for the increasing number of African political and cultural figures, including writers, intellectuals and musicians who had a welcoming place to meet and interact.
It was famously selected as the venue for the public release of a statement from Nelson Mandela during his imprisonment on Robben Island.
Even after most of the continent had become independent, the Africa Centre continued to be a focal point for Africans in the diaspora as well as others passing through, to meet, mingle, discuss and debate African issues.
It also became the prime cultural platform for African artists, sculptors, musicians, designers, academics and intellectuals to display their talents. The ever-growing patronage included the Afro-Caribbean community as well as friends of Africa from the rest of London’s cosmopolitan society. The fame of the Centre’s restaurant with its African food speciality as well as the Calabash Bar spread around the world.
Over time, the Centre provided classes teaching African history, politics, languages and even courses on drumming and dancing. Weekend raves to live bands often became the talk of the town, for example, the Soul II Soul sound system led by the legendary Jazzie B, had a residency at the venue and hosted countless memorable nights for many years.
In 2013, a difficult decision to relocate from Covent Garden was made and with funding from the Arts Council England, the freehold of the four-storey Gunpowder House in Southwark was acquired. Extended leases on two railway arches underneath the building were also acquired. In 2018, the Centre was awarded more funding to redevelop the property and work began in 2020.
Highlights of new-look centre
The redevelopment, which cost £5.6m has been completed and the new-look Centre in its new home and as of yesterday the centre is now officially open to the public.
Oba Nsugbe, Board Chai of the Centre, marking the relaunch of the much loved institution said: “With time, our mission and purpose have grown and transformed to not only represent the first generation of Africans, but also the second and third generation of Africans and Afro-Caribbeans.
“In addition, for a more wholesome engagement with the community, the updated Centre goes beyond a focus on arts and culture to have areas dedicated to education and learning and entrepreneurship.”
Southwark was chosen for its multicultural character and its proximity to a a wealth other iconic cultural institutions such as the Tate Modern, the Southbank Centre, The Old and Young Vic theatres, Shakespeare’s Globe and is the future site of the V&A East.
Spread over four floors, the Centre will have a restaurant, exhibition gallery and floors dedicated to education as well as facilities for entrepreneurs to network and develop new skills.
Everything, from the furniture, decor and paintings to food and drink in the Centre’s restaurant celebrates African culture and lifestyle. Works by renowned artists and designers including Barthélémy Toguo from Cameroon and Mash T design studio of South Africa grace the halls and rooms of the Centre.
One of the key attractions of the Centre will be the Malangatana Mural, which will be unveiled on the opening day. The Mural has special significance, as it has ties to the Centre’s original home in Covent Garden. It was originally painted by the legendary Mozambican artist Malangatana Ngwenya, in 1987.
Years later when the Africa Centre relocated, the mural was carefully removed and preserved. It has now been professionally restored and will take pride of place once again in our new home,” said Belvin Tawuya, Chief Marketing Manager, The Africa Centre. “Part of the unveiling celebrations will involve Malangatana’s family, the Mozambican community in London and other notable figures from the African art space.”
Other highlights include the launch of Tanzanian visual artist Sungi Mlengeya’s solo exhibition; a panel discussion on the impact of Afrobeats in shaping narratives about Africa and a festival of community-focused activities featuring performances, market stalls, food and entertainment.
The contribution of the old Africa Centre to enriching the lives of all who patronised the institution has been invaluable. There is no doubt the new Centre at 66-68 Great Suffolk Street, London SE1, will take over from there and prove just as inspiring and valuable – if not more – than its parent.