A message from political prisoners on Robben Island – issued in the name of Nelson Mandela and smuggled out of jail – was released at the Africa Centre by the ANC (African National Congress), under the title ‘Fifteen years in Robben Island: Nelson Mandela and other political prisoners in South Africa’. Accompanying speeches were given by Robert Hughes (MP), Mike Terry and Solly Smith.
- A series of ‘Media Days’ for sixth form students, with guest speakers, which included broadcaster Jon Snow and the Senegalese UN administrator, Djibril Diallo.
“Lost Heritage”, a major symposium on the return of cultural artefacts in collaboration with UNESCO. This event brought to the fore the controversial debate on who owns cultural artefacts. For the first time in history the then director of the British Museum, David Wilson, was persuaded to defend the Museum’s policy on the appropriation of African cultural heritage over the centuries.
The Africa Centre organised its first book fair, Book Week Africa. Book Week Africa ‘82 was opened by Amadou Mahtar M’Bow, then Director-General of UNESCO, and Kenyan writer, Ngugi wa Thiong’o.
- Exhibition of oil paintings by Ablade Glover entitled “A Ghanaian Colour Commentary”
National Conference on “Theatre-in-Education for Development” (also known as theatre for development), which was jointly organised with Oxfam’s Education Department, Leeds Development Education Centre, and Hackney’s Teachers’ and Theatre Centre.
Throughout Niven’s term, there was a good deal of theatre activity happening at the Centre. The orature collective ‘The African Dawn’, headed by Kwesi Owusu, came into being in 1980 and performed regularly at the Africa Centre for the rest of the decade. Alternative theatre plays were frequently performed by up and coming theatre groups, such as the Temba Theatre Company; Bubakanda Diata; the Brixton Arts Theatre; Grasshopper Theatre Company; Theatre of Contemporary Arabic Drama, to mention but a few.
During Alistair Niven’s time, new tenants moved into the building including the International African Institute, Travel Africa, and the Africa Book Centre, which came into being in 1980. Previous tenants, the African Educational Trust and the Calabash restaurant, remained.
Nigel Watt succeeds Dr Alistair Niven as Director of the Africa Centre. During his term, Watt attempted to reach out to a wider African audience, and its successful inclusion brought a new type of prestige to the Centre’s profile. Under his stewardship, the music and popular entertainment programme expanded, culminating in the establishment of the Limpopo Club, with its famous resident nights by Dj Jazzie B in his pre Soul II Soul days.
The Africa Centre held its second Book Week Africa, organised with publisher Hans Zell. Book Week Africa ‘85 exhibited over 1,000 books and led to the setting up of the Africa Books Collective, an organisation of publishers promoting the distribution of African books in and outside of Africa.
Between 1984 and 1986, the Centre coordinated a total of five full country focus programmes. As part of the Kenya Focus in 1984, the Centre staged a very contentious play written and directed by Ngugi wa Thiong’o, called ‘The Trial of Dedan Kimathi’.
The Africa Centre held an exhibition of great historical importance, “Apartheid’s War Exhibition’, opened by Neil Kinnock.
Somali Week’ was yet another country-specific event held at the Centre. The most peculiar thing about this event was the exhibition of a genuine Somali nomads’ tent, which occupied nearly a quarter of the Centre’s main hall. Throughout the week, the Centre also staged a forum for discussion on Somalia’s political predicament at the time with talks and other events.
- The Africa Centre held its first artist residency by Sokari Douglas, whose work had been exhibited for the first time in London at the centre’s Gallery in 1983.
- Ken Saro-Wiwa’s visited the Centre to give a reading for a play entitled “Suzaboy –A Novel in rotten English”, alongside Francis Bebey and others.
- Chinua Achebe also visited the Centre to read from his latest work of fiction, “Anthills of the Savannah” to a packed hall.
‘Zimbabwe Contemporary Stone Sculpture Exhibition’ held at the Barbican. Opened by HRH the Prince of Wales, who had lent some of his own private collection to be shown, this was probably one of the most high profile exhibitions that the Centre ever organised. One of the artists, David Mutasa went on to sculpt a bust of the Prince.
The Africa Centre’s decision to organize weekly live music events resulted in the establishment of the Limpopo Club in October 1988. Aside from the extensive programming of day and evening activities, the Africa Centre now established itself as a prime social night venue. The Club not only featured African bands but it also provided a showcase for the increasing number of London-based bands.
The list of bands who performed at the Centre is vast, but some notable names include the following: Courtney Pine Jazz Quartet; Shirati Jazz; Highlife International; Stella Chiweshe; Bembeya Jazz National, the national band from Guinea-Conakry; Kanda Bongo Man; M’pongo Love; Shikisha; Pat Thomas; Thomas Mapfumo; Bhundu Boys, Remmy Ongala, Angelique Kidjo; Dudu Pukwana; Baaba Maal, who performed at the Centre as part of his first UK tour in 1988; and Diblo Dibala.