The African community in London was shaken by the news earlier this year that the trustees of the Africa Centre planned to sell their impressive Georgian building in Covent Garden and move to another venue. The current home at 38 King Street has been a focal point for African arts and culture in the British capital since 1962.
Opponents of the sale agree that the building has become rundown but believe that a move away from its historic base would be unthinkable. They say it must be renovated — and given direction — instead. The centre has not had a director for the past five years and currently most of the property is rented out as offices.
A home from home
The African community has mobilised itself and has gathered an impressive list of supporters including Desmond Tutu, Wole Soyinka, Youssou N’Dour and Sudanese billionaire Mo Ibrahim. Tutu refers to the Africa Centre as having been “a home from home” when he was a student in London and later when he visited as an anti-apartheid campaigner. He has made a personal appeal to the trustees not to sell the building.
Kaye Whiteman, one of the trustees, says that £2.5-million is needed just to maintain the building’s historical grade two listed status. There are endless disrepair problems, such as the leaking 18th-century roof with an atrium long since boarded up. The beer-damaged floor in the auction hall also needs replacing.
The sale for £10.5-million “is still a proposal and it is something that has been contested”, Whiteman says. “We need some form of subsidy coming in from somewhere.” The centre cannot make enough money from events and he points to the endless failed proposals. “Over the last 30 years, maybe even more, the centre has lived in a very hand-to-mouth way.”
Originally it was used as a banana warehouse and later as an auction room. There is an urban legend that slaves were once sold on the premises. The building was eventually bought by the Catholic Church and given to the African community to help promote social, political and cultural exchanges between Africa and Britain.
Africa is important to London: the last census in 2001 estimated that one in 10 Londoners is of African origin.
Radicals and revolutionaries
At its height, the centre housed one of the first African restaurants in London, the Calabash, ran a nightclub called the Funkin’ Pussy and had a bar called Soweto. The centre was a meeting place for radicals and revolutionaries. The mural by Mozambican artist Malangatana snaking around the classical spiral staircase recalls those heady days.
The South African connection runs deep: Athol Fugard, John Kani, Dennis Brutus, Cosmo Pieterse and Winston Ntshona all visited and ran workshops at the centre. Dele Fatunla, the spokesperson for the Save the Africa Centre Campaign, says that Nelson Mandela’s messages thanking the London-based anti-apartheid movement for its support were read out there.
The last time the centre had funding problems, in 2003, a £3-million grant from the British Arts Council was secured by a letter from former president Thabo Mbeki in his role as African Union chairperson. This has been its life support.
“There is another option,” says Fatunla. “It is viable to maintain the building and there is no need to sell.” A development plan has been drawn up by David Adjeye, a Ghanaian architect working in London, and Hadeel Ibrahim, the daughter of Mo. Fatunla says the £10.5-million on offer undervalues the building.
Broadcaster and writer Ekow Eshun, a former director of the centre, is drawing up a cultural programme, which Fatunla describes as “the opportunity for the Africa Centre to be revitalised in all its aspects”. It will have an artistic director who will “spearhead some vibrant programming in the building. So I think that will contrast with the current experience,” he says.
Whiteman says that there is “common ground” between the trustees and the critics of the plan.
“When we see some of the things that people are saying, we can only agree with them. We all want to see an Africa Centre that is dynamic, vibrant, fit for purpose for the 21st century, and also [that] has a sustainable future.”
Whiteman welcomes a “workable alternative proposal that will give the centre what it wants and that is not going to consume an enormous amount of money simply maintaining a listed building”. The trustees will consider the plans being put together. “If it’s a valid proposal, I am sure we would go along with it.”
Fatunla sees this is as a timely opportunity to reassess the current situation. “The issue with selling the Africa Centre is that for over 50 years the building has played a major role in African history. It’s a heritage site. It’s a community site. It’s where all Africans can come together and share an awareness and understanding of what it means to be African,” he says.
“The whole premise of the proposals is that it’s going to rely on private investors, particularly those who have links to Africa,” says Fatunla. “I think that is a very inspiring position to look at it from.”