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  • Writer's pictureAlexia Walker

Brand New Art at the Africa Centre in London

Leilah Babirye, Kuchu Series (Queer Ugandans)

The Africa Centre is opening a larger home on the Southbank in London, not far from Tate. The new building will contribute significantly to the growth of a new cultural hub. The Africa Centre first opened its doors in 1964 and was inaugurated by Kenneth Kaunda. It was originally located in Covent Garden.

As Africa was gaining its independence, the role of the Centre was to promote a different narrative of the continent. It was also a home away from home for many Africans in exile or passing through London. Archbishop Desmond Tutu used to meet Thabo Mbeki at the bar and described the Centre as a home ‘to all who are Africans, and all those who have a care for the interests of the continent and its people’.

Over the years, the Africa Centre has programmed art exhibitions, concerts, conferences, lectures, and a variety of cultural events that continue to this day to shift the narrative about Africa.

Art from Africa is at the cornerstone of the Centre going forward. A major project, which has received the support of Nando’s UK, is the restoration and re-display of a large mural that the Mozambican modernist artist Malangatana painted in the 80’s in the original building. In the chairman’s words, Oba Nsugbe, ‘the fact that it was painted by an artist of such artistic and political significance makes it the embodiment of the charity's mission.’

My art advisory, Walker Art, was appointed to build the permanent collection of contemporary African art in collaboration with the Centre. The collection is displayed throughout the building which includes an exclusive pan-African restaurant, a more informal bar and performance space, and a gallery space for exhibitions and hire.

The collection aims to be as representative as it can be, considering its modest size, of current art practices on the continent, and to be diverse in terms of gender, generational and regional representation. It includes artists at different stages of their career, such as the 25-year-old Cinthia Sifa Mulanga hailing from the DRC to the well established South African William Kentridge.

It features artists from North to South Africa, and East to West, including Moroccan Hassan Hajjaj, South African Thenjiwe Nkosi, Ugandan Leilah Babirye and Cameroonian Barthélémy Toguo.

William Kentridge, The Bird and Its Watcher

In line with the African Centre’s purpose, the collection, by its diversity, stands strong against reducing contemporary African art to a single story. Black figuration and materiality are well represented and so are abstraction and conceptualism.

Ethiopian born and New York based Tariku Shiferaw’s ongoing series of abstract paintings One of These Black Boys references musical genres that have originated in Black communities. The piece at the Centre, Tap In, takes its name from American rapper Saweetie.

Thenjiwe Nkosi interrogates the physical, ideological and political impact of architectural structures. The painting Spring Floor depicts an abstracted gymnasium arena. In this instance, Nkosi’s use of planes and angles is subversive too. It can be interpreted as resistance to the pressures the art market is placing today on artists of African descent to produce Black Figuration.

Forced migration is a recurring theme in the collection. Serge Alain Nitegeka had to flee his native Rwanda during the 1994 genocide. His body of work, which is often abstract and minimalist, explores the refugee’s experience. The piece Identity is Fragile XIII shows a lone figure, a self-portrait, struggling with an object that could be a sphere or a bundle of possessions hastily packed by a migrant.

Nigerian Gerald Chukwuma’s has similar interests, yet translates them in a very different style. His work is characterised by intricately crafted wood-slate sculptures onto which symbols borrowed from traditional Nigerian cultures are chiselled and painted, such as in the large sculpted work in the Centre’s collection.

Through his work, Barthélémy Toguo, who lives between France and Cameroon, speaks about political awareness and the violence of migration policies. The Africa Centre owns two of his lithographs examining the concepts of roots and alienation.

Zimbabwean Kudzanai Chiurai is another artist who for a while had to leave his native country for political reasons. The photograph Untitled (III) captures the state of post colonialism in Africa and the depressing effects of a foreign and ill-fitting administration. The artwork is meant to form the basis of Chiurai’s upcoming iteration of the Library of Things We Forgot to Remember at the Africa Centre, an audio and visual African archive that has recently been shown in Paris at the Palais de Tokyo.

Currently living in New York, Leilah Babirye is an artist and LGBTQ+ activist. Babirye had to escape from Uganda after being outed by the press in a country with strict homophobic legislation. She is mostly known for her sculptures made out of discarded materials. In Uganda, she explains, queer people are often referred to as “ebisiyaga”, the husk of a sugarcane, which is to say worthless rubbish. The collection includes a portrait painted on paper from the Kuchu Series (Queer Ugandans).

The Gabonese Owanto, whose conceptual work raises awareness against female genital mutilation, is an artist and activist as well. In the series Pardonne Moi, Owanto collaborates with reformed ‘cutters’ from Senegal who have abandoned the knife to sew words in yellow thread into pieces of cloth. While the process is about atonement (Pardonne Moi means Forgive Me), it is also transformative and an invitation for women to be in charge of their own narrative.

Materiality and figuration are further represented by the Ghanaian Rufai Zakari who uses found objects and collage to investigate consumerism, environmental pollution, labour and trade and their impact on Ghanaian society. Chelsea I is made of plastic bags and food wraps. The artist substitutes discarded materials for paint to create portraits of glamorous women.

Salah Elmur was born in Khartoum and now lives in Cairo. He paints large fantastical artworks that are rich in colours and inspired by his childhood impressions of Sudan, of its people, fruits and animals, and of a time suspended when abundance was the norm.

Hassan Hajjaj, who hails from Morocco, is similarly inspired by his country’s culture. Known for his photographic work, Hajjaj produces playful and pop images that subvert the Western perceptions of contemporary Moroccans. Mixing Moroccan heritage with luxury fashion and street culture, he creates portraits that are joyful, high energy and that boldly stake their identity.

The collection is on permanent view at the Africa Centre, 66-68 Great Suffolk Street, London.

Serge Alain Nitegeka, Identity Is Fragile XIII

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