By Dele Meiji Fatunla
Monday, October 24, 2011.
Sokari Douglas-Camp is one of the UK’s foremost sculptors of African descent. She was the first Artist-in-Residence at London’s Africa Centre in Covent Garden. The residency was an experience that helped launch her career internationally. She recently spoke to Dele Meiji Fatunla from the Save The African Centre (STAC) Campaign about the Africa Centre – and what it meant to her.
Thank you for speaking to me today, really what I’d like to ask you about is about your time at the Africa Centre and how you came to be involved with it?
The Africa Centre was my first exhibiting space; I went in and chatted to the arts and culture person there [Tony Humphries] and I said was going to Central [St Martins] and I needed to show my work to people other than my English tutors because they really didn’t have any idea what I was trying to make with my art and I need to have a conversation with other Africans if possible, and so I did a four-day exhibition at the Africa Centre, and it was very bizarre because I was only in my second year at Central, and then after I got my degree and my Masters, I became the first Artist in residence at the Africa Centre in 1987.
So you literally just walked off the street and into the Africa Centre, so you must have known about it…were there any other places that you thought might have been responsive to your work?
Not in the central London area, I could have gone to Brixton I guess; I don’t think Brixton at the time had any showing areas; so the Africa Centre was brilliant, because it was next to my school [Central St. Martin’s] practically; I’d eaten there, gone to concerts there, and because I knew a lot of Africans went there and what I wanted was contact with other Africans
What was the environment like at the time when you went there?
Exciting, because there were South African exiles there, you know people that were brilliant artists, philosophers, academics and so anytime you went to events you just met very interesting peoples, especially South Africans who were in some kind of stress because they were in exile and campaigning for their country to change – so they had opinions about everything’
How did your four day exhibition go?
It taught me a lot. It taught me how to catch press – Time Out [Magazine] had offices nearby and I just used to go and sit waiting for Sarah Kent (the arts critic at Time Out then) to go to her desk. I sat and waited. I was given lists of people from the Africa Centre that were interested in art, and I established a list from being involved with the Africa Centre; and the arts person there (Tony Humphries) taught me how to write letters asking for grants and all sorts of things.
Was there quite proactive support for African Artists at the time?
So Greater London Council or whatever they were called, had the idea that things had to be ghettoised, actually; and it was people at the Africa Centre, that I think gave me the guts to say to Greater London Arts, that things didn’t have to be ghettoised, we were members of the community and the community was broad and central, and we could show anywhere we wanted and it didn’t have to be Brixton anytime an African wanted to do something and the Africa Centre established that then, and I think in 2011 it’s still needed just because its central.
How did your becoming an artist-in-residence develop from your four day exhibition? What Happened?
I don’t know, I guess I got some fans, people who wanted to encourage me to continue as an artist, and after you’ve been in education for a long time like I was I needed a little support and the Africa Centre came up with this idea for this residency.
When was your four day exhibition?
Did your profile increase during that time…I guess what I’m trying to figure? What was the impact of your four day exhibition and the residency of the Africa Centre on your Career?
I was a student. But my profile did increase yes. Well, after the residency I put on a show and it involved seventeen traditional artists coming from Nigeria; I was able to get a grant and brought these characters over from my village and they performed in the Piazza, we treated the Africa Centre as a sort of shrine, and we had money from the Rivers State government at the time, and the GLA and some other kind of commonwealth grant, and these guys were flown over by Nigerian Airways; they came over, stayed over in Holland Park, in a hostel there and performed in Maida Vale, I think they did a few sessions in Camden, Battersea park and Covent Garden and I had a sort of final exhibition that was seen by a curator from the Smithsonian in Washington DC, and he took my show from the Africa Centre and opened the Smithsonian African museum with it...so you know, how big could that be? (does it get)
So that’s international reach and power...from the Africa Centre!
You are one of the pre-eminent artists in the UK, especially of Artists of African Descent in the UK? My question is do you think the Africa Centre made that kind of achievement easier..do you think the African Current of the Africa Centre have any impact on your art?
Totally, because you know I got free crits from the south African artists that were fairly well established; Gavin Djanges, Pitika Netuyi…these guys were kind of radical and had a very different view of the way you can display art, ‘cause, you know, we come from a rich heritage of; Gavin made me realise that you know there’s kind on installation art when you walk into (an orisha’s compound) or whatever, or some kind of shaman’s compound, there’s installation pots and things laid out...Art in Daily life in a way? Yes, there’s art in daily life and an awful lot of ceremony that can be displayed in an art gallery and he encouraged me to kind of develop my thoughts about performance art, not only people dressing up in masquerade clothing but what kind of environment do they play in, I mean the Covent Garden piazza was a perfect village square for me to have these performers play in, and I suppose it’s quite traditional world-wide to have a piazza that you can kind of perform in, I mean look at the kind of street art that are happening now, especially for the Olympics and things, and they’re going to encourage that, and its cheap, it doesn’t have much to clear away and all that and its panoramic because you’re not only looking at the performers, you’re looking at the crowd and how they are reacting – all of that can be zoned into by an artist, and I tried to express that in my work and it was because of the Africa Centre and of course my Nigerian heritage from independence times when Wole Soyinka and there was a theatre chap that was very exciting that used to take his performances all over the country and Nigerian Television and all kinds of things from my childhood bringing tradition and modernity together, and I guess I never recovered from that and to try to announce that in the middle of London was quite sort of tough, because people that were into looking at America all the time, and minimal bricks on the floor didn’t get it about tradition and modernity mixing and funnily enough the Fela show that just happened, brought that back again, and it’s not so much tradition and modernity, it’s that African culture has a very lively arts scene that isn’t strictly European and it was celebrated at the Africa Centre and celebrated in the festival hall and we should make Nigeria celebrate – and the show’s gone there now; I mean I love the global aspect of it and the Africa Centre was the beginning of all that’
Your going to Royal Festival Hall?
Oh no, no, no, the Fela performance that happened at the festival hall; I did show at the Royal Festival Hall. I showed there because some curator liked my work. And was this post the Africa Centre? Yes. Everything was post the Africa Centre. It sounds like the Africa Centre was your launchpad? It was.
And the people who took notice of your work at the Africa Centre, was that the wider audience in the UK or was that primarily, I mean you’ve mentioned the Smithsonian...I mean was the audience purely African?
No it was international, and it was international because I think there was an exhibition called ‘The Magicians of Africa or something, and it was an exhibition that happened in Paris and it showed African art and compared it to European art and just showed that African Art had influence European Art and there were these contemporary artists like Sheri Samba that were doing perfectly valid work but from an African line and they were called the magicians’ of something or other, I can’t remember and I was in the wave of that conversation – and it was the time.
Amazing. One question...I wanted to take further your analogy of Covent Garden being the Village Square and the Africa Centre...in a lot of African Cultures the shrine or where masquerades are kept are sort of secret places of power and in a sense was that part of the work that you were doing at the Africa Centre? Or in a sense how did the sense of place with the Africa Centre feed into your work? Place and Power...
It was. It was absolutely necessary. The Africa Centre, What can I say about it? The Africa Centre was like a shrine, and it gave one license for one’s identity; was so important, what can I say about it? I can’t be too intellectual enough about it...except for my exhibition for my show, Sekiapu the Africa Centre was used as a shrine and I have sculptural things in there that were kinetic, the guys performed in there, the governor of rivers state came to the Africa Centre, we had Nigerian food in the restaurant, and you know for the time it focused on Nigeria for the time that the exhibition was on; it just made me feel better as an individual, as a person more valid, at least we were so at sea, in England because you have to have an awful lot that makes you worthy in someone else’s land – and the Africa Centre was it.
Moving to the future, what would you say to people who say that was then and it was a much more embattled environment for black people and Africans and what would you say about the Africa Centre and its necessity, and the necessity of somewhere like it, I suppose..In the current disposition?
The current position we’re in; I’m just so sorry that this has happened to the Africa Centre but you know it’s bad management, as far as necessity; it’s needed because we have so many different opinions of what an African is, and you know there’s Diaspora children as well who have this heritage you know, so it’s terribly important that the Africa Centre exists because you know in there slaves were sold and Ben Okri was there anxious about how he could make a career out of writing and you know it’s got an awful lot of heritage for an awful lot of people. Did you come in touch with these different people at the Africa Centre? I did, heard political arguments that you knew nothing about, but you listened and if you could put anything in, with a beer in your hand you shouted your piece. I mean yes, I did come across all these characters there, so you know the kids of today, people that have black heritage need an Africa Centre so that they realize that there’s so many different people in Africa. Especially with all this revolutionary things going we need to just go in there and take it over.
I guess you know about the current plans by the trustees of the Africa Centre to lease the building for 125 years and that there are no specifics on what’s going to happen with the new plans for it? Obviously I’m interviewing you on behalf of the STAC Campaign. And you’re a signatory to the original letter, why?
Because my career wouldn’t be without the Africa Centre; and it could do the same for another person who needs that kind of space who just needs that kind of identity to make their mark in their career or life, so it’s needed.
And I think that’s a great note to end on.
Describe yourself as you were then? In a sense what you were like...what was your ambition...were you quite shy? Were you uncertain about your ambition etc...
I was shy and I’m still a bit shy and the Africa Centre was a place with clout, the whole of Africa, the whole continent behind my backs to fall back into; and actually I’ve always been uncomfortable being termed only an African rather than as a person but with the Africa Centre where it is, and the status of Africa in the world, you know, one of the biggest continents or landmasses in the world, I don’t mind being part of that. The Africa Centre was important, you want to do your profession, and be recognised for your profession instead of being recognized as... (The African Artist) I mean in Nigeria you have over 300 languages and if you make a little children’s about Eze goes to school, you have to do Ayo goes to school as well; some Hausa name as well, and you just think Africa Centre, what are they talking about?
I’ve had conversations with people who say ‘I have a problem with this whole Africa Centre idea but then at the same time...its good place, because the identities are so contested, you know this is where we are going to talk about it?
Yea, it’s needed more than ever now. Because who else can talk about it?
Dele Meiji is a London-based writer and researcher.