In the Centre

Looking back at the intersections of music, food, art and politics at the Africa Centre in London’s Covent Garden

By Eddie Chambers

Exterior view of the Africa Centre, King Street, London, ca. 1980s. Courtesy the Africa Centre, London

  • Feb 17, 2023
  • Ursula: Issue 7

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 recently 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 aside 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.

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.

Poster for “The Pan-Afrikan Connection: An Exhibition of Work by Young Black Artists” at the Africa Centre, 1982. Courtesy the Africa Centre, London, and Eddie Chambers

Johnson Mbondo, manager of the Calabash restaurant, and others on the balcony of the Africa Centre, ca. 1980. London Metropolitan Archives, City of London LMA/4816, from the Africa Centre Collection

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 the 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 Centre its own from the late 1980s on, when the venue became legendary for Sunday evening 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.

In the words of journalist Richard Dowden, “it became The Place for African presidents, freedom fighters, writers and artists to speak and debate. You could find everything African there...”

Of the significant events that took place at the Africa Centre in the first decades of its existence, some are remembered better than others; among the former is the Destruction in Art Symposium, organized by Gustav Metzger and John Sharkey in 1966; as part of its programming, Yoko Ono performed her Cut Piece (1964) there. In the mid-1970s, the illustrious speakers at the Africa Centre included Chinua Achebe, who discussed his own work along with that of other African writers; and the Pan-African colossus, radical academic Walter Rodney—author of How Europe Underdeveloped Africa (1972). Such progressive programming spoke to the ways in which Africa Centre became a hub: In the words of journalist Richard Dowden, "it became The Place for African presidents, freedom fighters, writers and artists to speak and debate. You could find everything African there, from Ghanaian food to fierce debates and fantastic parties."

Menu from the Calabash, the Africa Centre’s restaurant, date unknown. London Metropolitan Archives, City of London LMA/4816, from the Africa Centre Collection

Yoko Ono performing Cut Piece at the Destruction in Art Symposium (DIAS), Africa Centre, London, 1966. Courtesy Fondazione Bonotto. Photographer unknown

The Africa Centre had a clearly Africa-centric (rather than diasporic) focus, which also applied to its arts programming. A 1991 publication speaks of the desire “to include works from all parts of the continent” and describes the gallery as a space “offered primarily to African artists wishing to exhibit their work in Central London.” While it is likely that more attention would be paid to diasporic artists today, the centrality of Africa was important for compelling reasons, not least the success of independence movements across the continent and the seemingly intractable consolidation of Rhodesia and South Africa as bastions of white supremacy that came to an end only with the founding of Zimbabwe in 1980 and the end of apartheid in the early 1990s.

Over many decades, the challenges Africa faced and the complexities of overcoming them, on the one hand, and the continent’s frequently optimistic consciousness, on the other, were reflected in the Africa Centre’s exhibitions, performances, discussions and other cultural events. The programming demonstrated that the continent of Africa was more than, and very different from, the widespread perception of a continent racked by extraordinarily violent conflicts that were either anticolonial in nature or emanated from the vying of the world’s superpowers in a series of gruesome Cold War battlegrounds. The Africa Centre thus offered a counterpoint to the ways in which Africa was often regarded—and constructed—as a wholly dysfunctional continent racked by incomprehensible tribal and ethnic tensions and discord that rumbled on year in, year out.

Book week at the Africa Center, 1985. Courtesy the Africa Centre, London

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.

While this may well have been the first exhibition at the Africa Centre dedicated to the work of British-born or raised Black artists (all of Caribbean parentage), it followed the previous year’s Festival of Progressive Poetry, Music & Art from Africa, which resonated strongly with diasporic and Black consciousness sentiments and, perhaps unknowingly, pointed to future strands of curating and scholarship around African Art and how African and diasporic contemporary artists would be situated, constructed and understood. From the festival’s publicity: • Contemporary African art has not yet received the attention that has been increasingly fostered upon historical African art which had past realities as its point of departure. This attention has partly come about as a result of the status of such works as investible objects or, as in the case of mass produced “airport art,” an attempt at an appropriation of mythical Africa. • The exhibits, on the other hand, attempt to comment/reflect/criticize the existing realities of Africa including the popular struggles of its peoples by utilizing various media including sculpture, cartoons, prints, posters and montages. In the process, some of the works continue the evolution of traditional aesthetic elements. • The music night brings together various groups and artists committed to the idea of revitalizing the richness of African culture by fusing the progressive elements of traditional forms with social commentary in order to fashion a new potent force for contributing towards the changing of contemporary reality.

Poster for a concert by the African Dawn at the Africa Centre, 1983. London Metropolitan Archives, City of London LMA/4816, from the Africa Centre Collection

Poster for the Festival of Progressive Poetry Music & Art from Africa held at the Africa Centre in 1981. Courtesy the Africa Centre, London, and Eddie Chambers

This was a fascinating statement-cum-manifesto, replete with Marxist interpretations of and attitudes toward culture, that simultaneously referenced the vexing dominance of outdated and patronizing institutional attitudes to African art that were often essentially anthropological or ethnographic in nature.

The accompanying exhibition was an extraordinary undertaking, featuring work by Ruhi Hamid, a graphic artist of Tanzanian Pakistani background; Nadir Tharani, a painter from Tanzania; Charles Davis, a graphic artist from Zimbabwe; and South African sculptor Pitika Ntuli. The presence of Hamid and Tharani was somewhat revolutionary on account of the South Asian background of these East African artists. Furthermore, these four artists were joined by a white British painter, Martin Lovis, and Shakka Dedi, born in New York to Jamaican parents. Dedi would go on to be the founding director of the Black-Art Gallery established in 1982 in Finsbury Park, north London, a key initiative that did much to articulate understandings of Black art in the UK.

Arguably the most significant and influential group exhibition held at the Africa Centre was Lubaina Himid’s “Five Black Women” in 1983, which also broke the mold of the venue’s customary visual-arts repertoire. At some point, Himid, who had studied theater design at Wimbledon School of Art, joined the Africa Centre’s exhibition selection committee, facilitating her organization of this important, timely and influential exhibition of her own work along with that of Sonia Boyce, Claudette Johnson, Houria Niati and Veronica Ryan. (Notably, four of these five artists have since received an honor bestowed by the Queen, while Himid herself won the Turner Prize in 2017, and Boyce was winner of the Golden Lion at the 2022 Venice Biennale.) Himid’s own life-size, painted, cutout men with meter-long erections were complemented by Johnson’s pastel drawings of women. Boyce made autobiographical work, also using pastels, while Ryan showed small sculptural works and Niati reimagined colorful Delacroix paintings. As was typical of exhibitions at the Africa Centre, wall-based work was hung on the walls of a rectangular, upper-level balcony, from which one could not only look down at the multipurpose space on ground level, but, more importantly, look across at the artwork installed on the adjacent or opposite wall—“across a yawning chasm,” as Himid recalled.

Lubaina Himid, It’s All in Your Head, 1982. Installation view, “Five Black Women,” the Africa Centre, London, 1983. Courtesy the artist and Hollybush Gardens, London

The Africa Centre’s exhibitions did not come with catalogues as a matter of course. While this certainly makes the historian’s work more difficult, Himid saw it differently, noting, some six years after the exhibition, “We recognized the show as being important but the need to have a catalogue to prove that the event occurred did not have a high priority, since we clearly and confidently expected there to be shows along these lines all the time from that moment on.” The “Five Black Women” exhibition was indeed the first of several such undertakings organized by Himid. Also in London, a few months later, “Black Woman Time Now” opened at the Battersea Arts Centre, and then the altogether much better known and more substantially remembered group show “The Thin Black Line” took place at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in 1985.

The Africa Centre’s precarious finances were a matter of public record and around a decade ago, partly in an effort to stabilize itself financially, the institution gave up its iconic Covent Garden location. With the move to Southwark, into a building strikingly redesigned by architecture studio Freehaus, the Africa Centre may thrive once more, albeit in a new form in which its historical focus on the visual arts has been subsumed into a broader rubric of “culture.” But the legacy of the place and its exhibitions is enormous, and it will be for visionary researchers and art historians to excavate more of its remarkable history.

Eddie Chambers was born in Wolverhampton, England, and is a professor of art history in the Department of Art and Art History at the University of Texas at Austin. His books include World Is Africa: Writings on Diaspora Art, and he is editor of the recently published Routledge Companion to African American Art History. He is also editor in chief of the College Art Association’s Art Journal.