From Croydon, for Africa

AI Profile        For most of his life Kenneth Olumuyiwa Tharp, the Croydon born son of a veterinary professor and a nurse, didn’t use his Yoruba middle name. Now, as the new director of the Africa Centre, it is who he is: an African in London

The name, Olumuyiwa, translates as “God has given him here to us”. For Tharp, the successful dancer, choreographer and CEO of The Place, the contemporary dance centre, the Africa Centre in Covent Garden was the place where you knew there would be fried plantains on the menu, little more. Now he sees it as the world’s window on Africa’s dizzyingly rich 21stcentury promise.

Portrait of Kenneth Tharp by Megan Taylor

“The legacy of aid means the world has been fed a diet of Africa as war-torn, poverty-stricken, without reflecting the incredible diversity of those 54 nations” he says. “Nigeria (where his father was born) is five times the size of UK with hundreds of languages spoken. We need to start to reflect the richness of that diversity. We need to get beyond the one story and start looking at the many stories.”

Opened in 1964 by the then new president of Zambia, Kenneth Kaunda, the Africa Centre was born in a different age, when independence on the continent, often from Britain, had its people in a paroxysm of fear mixed with excitement. The centre was supposed to be a home from home for Africans, a place to meet fellow countrymen, to eat and drink in the African way, to hear African music and enjoy African exhibitions.

It was also the place, said the author and journalist Richard Dowden, “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. Sometimes all three at the same time…” It’s where Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Thabo Mbeki would meet informally to discuss the future of South Africa and the rest of the continent; where Hugh Masakela played among friends while on tour; where Alice Walker read from her new book The Color Purple; where Wole Soyinke lectured on African literature; where Jazzy B held Saturday club sessions for kids and formed Soul II Soul.

Corten Head, by Nigerian British sculptor Sokari Douglas Camp, stand sentry at the Africa Centre

But the centre lost its way in the1990s. Its Grade II listed King Street home, once a banana warehouse and the given to the African people by the Catholic church, was seriously out of place in the transformed Covent Garden and its spaces woefully under-used. The Ghanaian British architect Sir David Adjaye proposed a £12m re-scaping of the building.

But his plans wold not have met the centres charitable aims, and instead the trustees decided to sell the long lease to a developer for £10.5m - the income pays for part of the centre's programme. It moved temporarily into the Rich Mix building in Bethnal Green, but 18 months ago bought the lease on two railway arches in Southwark and the freehold of an adjacent four-storey building. This is Tharp’s canvas, Africa is his paint box.

Tharp, 58, was a surprise appointment, a half-African who had never traded on his Nigerian heritage. He went to the Perse School in Cambridge, then a direct grant grammar school and did his A-levels at Cambridge College of Arts & Technology (now Anglia Ruskin University) while studying Russian classical ballet privately. In 1978 he joined the London Contemporary Dance School at The Place for his dance qualifications, and was with the London Contemporary Dance Theatre company until 1994 when he went freelance as a director, teacher and choreographer, working closely with the Royal Ballet School.

In 2005 he was in the second cohort of the Clore Leadership programme, thrown into a mulligatawny soup of cultural specialties. “Part of its richness of 27 people from right across the sectors, opera directors, Imperial War Museum curators, artists, writers, and right across that cultural diversity there’s a lot of commonality” he says. “Many of the challenges are quite generic, and as a group every now and then we do a catch-up”.

Having been taught leadership he then put it into practice, back at The Place as its chief executive, for nine years. He stood down in 2016, and a mark of his success there was the CBE he received last year.

He wasn’t looking for a job, certainly not expecting the Africa Centre to come calling.

“The interesting thing about the Africa Centre where it is now, geographically and historically, is it’s making a transition” Tharp says. “While it’s got 54 years of amazing heritage which shouldn’t be neglected or forgotten, it also has a very current role to play, so it feels more like a start-up than an organisation that has 50 years of history, and that’s both challenging and exciting.”

He takes on the centre with five avowed “pillars” of endeavour. Culture, and the “fizzing” talent from painters to writers to designers to musicians; entrepreneurship, a hub to connect young creative businesses; intellect, championing African thought through talks, debates and conferences; education, with new programmes on African heritage and contemporary culture; social, to give an African welcome and offer a “taste of Africa”. “We have to make it welcoming to all interested in Africa, but there are things we need to do in a different way to make anyone feel they can cross the threshold and be comfortable” he says.

It looks as if it has been sided away in a back street, but the development of the free-standing building will bring a street café offering the famous fired bananas and much else. In August it will have its festival once again, on three music stages,  “and there may be a little dance, I wouldn’t be surprised” Tharp says. It has a well-established radio station, Colourful Radio, which has its own agenda as a kind of cross between the World Service and Radio Two.

Sad for some as the move from Covent Garden might have been, Southwark is the place to be, he is sure: “Covent Garden has changed, most of the people passing through are tourists; here we’re really into the people who live here, work here, and we're surrounded by big cultural venues, the Tate, the Old Vic and the Young Vic (whose new artistic director, Kwame Kwei-Armah, is an old friend and collaborator), the Jerwood, “a cultural quarter with a particular kind of energy” Tharp says. “And there’s a very fast changing demographic here – I saw a statistic that said that between 2015 and 2025 there’ll be a 41% growth in the black population here. In the 12th poorest borough in London now there’s a real mixture of wealth and poverty, of cultures, but it’s that mix that’s really exciting. 

And while he wants the Africa Centre to be welcoming to all, not just the African diaspora, his mission is to educate the world about the youngest continent. “Africa has moved on from the shadow of colonialism” he says. “Part of my recent learning is that 60% of Africa has a population of 25 or under while we have an ageing population in the UK, so something completely different is at hand.

“There’s a huge opportunity in harnessing that incredible energy, resource and young talent, but we have to be very practical and the young Africa Centre will very careful about telling people in Africa what they should be doing. Those days are gone, and it’s at least a two way flow now.”

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