In the Centre: Looking back at the intersections of music, food, art and politics at the Africa Centre in London’s Covent Garden
The Africa Centre, which used to occupy a substantial, multi-story building in the fashionable heart of London’s West End, midway between Leicester Square and Covent Garden tube stations, has an extraordinarily important place in the history of Black creativity in Britain in the second half of the twentieth century. It was, in a manner of speaking, Africa in central London. It is astonishing that relatively little is known or remembered of its illustrious history, or of the many exhibitions of the work of Africa-born or -based practitioners—and periodically also that of Black British artists—that took place there. With the demise of the Commonwealth Institute and its two gallery spaces in the early 2000s, and with what turned out to be the long-term closure of the Africa Centre in 2013 (although a new chapter in its history has recenty begun in new premises in Southwark, on the other side of the Thames), central London lost two highly significant visual art spaces in which the work of Black artists and other practitioners of color could be seen as a matter of course. A measure of the importance of this fact is that apart from the October Gallery, gallery-going audiences and the general public in central London currently have little to no access to venues in which the work of Black artists is always on display.
The Africa Centre was founded in 1961 with the aim of informing the British public about Africa. Its building on King Street—opened by Kenneth Kaunda, the first president of Zambia, in 1964, the year of that country’s independence from British rule—served as a hybrid performance space, gallery, and educational facility. For many in Covent Garden, this creation of Africa in central London remained hidden in plain sight, but for countless others, the Africa Centre became an important, much-loved part of their lives or their time in London. The ground floor housed a shop selling Kenyan kiondo bags, carvings from West Africa, various kinds of jewelry, and the like, while upstairs a specialty bookshop sold a range of publications about Africa and/or by African and Caribbean authors. On the building’s lower level was the Calabash Restaurant. A report in the NAACP’s magazine The Crisis gives a wonderful sense of what was available: “a chicken dish (cooked in coconut cream) from Zanzibar, a fish speciality from Senegal, an Algerian lamb and aubergine (eggplant) stew and other dishes from Zaire (beef with palm nut and spinach), Sierra Leone, West Africa, Uganda and Malawi.” Musicians from across the continent played frequently at Africa Centre, among them legends such as Nigerian guitar wizard Victor Uwaifo. Zimbabwean promoter and sound engineer Wala Danga organized club nights; there were also occasionally outlier events such as a 1979 concert featuring Scritti Politti, Prag Vec and The The. A new generation would call the Africa Center its own from the late 1980s on, when the venue became legendary for Sunday night parties thrown by London-born DJ and producer Jazzie B with the Soul II Soul sound system; these nights led to Virgin Records signing the collective behind hits such as “Back To Life (However Do You Want Me)” in 1988.
… As an art student in the early 1980s, I was working with a group of other young Black artists and art students keen to start showing their work at galleries beyond the towns and cities of West Midlands where we had grown up or were studying. To that end, we speculatively approached the Africa Centre, which we had at that point never visited. When I wrote to the venue on behalf of the group, I was keen to stress what would now likely be referred to as our diasporic sensibilities. “The [accompanying] details refer to the group of young black artists whom I am representing, and not myself personally. None of us were born in Africa but we consider ourselves to be ‘Pan-Africans’; by this we mean that we acknowledge Africa as being the home of our ancestors and consider ourselves to be in a form of exile, being unable, for obvious reasons, to return to Africa.” Our approach was positively received, and ‘The Pan-Afrikan Connection: An Exhibition of Work by Young Black Artists’ opened in May 1982, featuring predominantly paintings and drawings from Dominic Dawes, Claudette Johnson, Wenda Leslie, Keith Piper, and myself.
The above extracts are from Eddie Chambers’ “In the Centre: Looking back at the intersections of music, food, art and politics at the Africa Centre in London’s Covent Garden”, Ursula [Hauser & Wirth], Issue 7, Winter 2022/23: 132-137