A recent panel on Africa’s external debt might seem like an odd fit for an arts institution with a permanent collection that includes a ceremonial Baule mask from Ivory Coast and a 2003 mixed-media piece by acclaimed artist Wangechi Mutu.
But it was part of deliberate programming by The Africa Center, a New York institution that after decades of meanders in both location and mission has emerged with new leadership and a new optimism that it can find an audience for dynamic and richly varied events centered on expanding people’s understanding of Africa.
“We want to convince you these things do affect our daily lives and are worthy of our attention,” said Tunde Olatunji, associate director of policy for The Africa Center, as he moderated the debt panel earlier this year that featured researchers from Nigeria and Kenya.
Far from being a stuffy museum, the space envisioned by Uzodinma Iweala, its chief executive officer since 2018, is a landing place for the African diaspora, an exploration of Blackness and a venue for changing the way Americans interact with the African continent.
Situated on an East Harlem street corner overlooking Central Park, the Center has welcomed billionaires Bill Gates and Mo Ibrahim talking about the future of African business as well as the actress Lupita Nyong’o reading from her children’s book on colorism. Hank Willis Thomas’s Afro Pick installation was situated on its plaza. The Center has hosted African presidents and prizewinning authors — and a sweaty crowd breaking into a dance party.
“There are places where your behavior has to be precious,” said Iweala, speaking about his vision. “Then there are the places that are about community — the way we interact with each other, the way we build that community, the way we are in that space eating, drinking, talking.”
It took a long while for The Africa Center to get to this point, and Iweala acknowledges it’s still far from reaching its potential. The Center, with an annual budget of $4 million, occupies only about 20 percent of some 70,000 square feet of the space allotted for it in the Robert A.M. Stern-designed tower that includes 17 floors of luxury condos.
Plans call for the rest to be filled out with an auditorium, cafe, administrative offices, an events venue, artists’ studios and galleries, a performance space and a learning laboratory for science and math.
But that would require significant new fund-raising and a bump in staffing, which now stands at 11 full-time positions and four part-time.
Members of the board, which along with Nyong’o includes Chelsea Clinton as well as board president Halima Dangote, the daughter of a Nigerian cement magnate, are considering pursuing a new fund-raising campaign and other public appeals to account for soaring post-pandemic construction and other costs that grew by more than 30 percent. In 2019, the capital campaign goal had been $50 million with hope of completing construction in fall 2021. Officials declined to offer a target number for a new campaign, saying only that it would be announced later this year.
“There is a push on our part to get the rest built,” Iweala said. “These are the things I need to work on.”
In its current form, the Center has received $4 million in city funds. But through the years, more than $32 million in public money and tax credits have been steered toward the project, most of it when the Center had a vastly different goal and even a different name: the Museum for African Art.
The institution was first envisioned as strictly cultural when it opened in 1984 occupying two townhouses on Manhattan’s Upper East Side and later a building in the Soho neighborhood. It was small but received praise for its traveling shows.
In 1997, Elsie McCabe Thompson became president with visions of an expansive and elaborate building on Fifth Avenue at the top of the city’s so-called Museum Mile. The institution raised more than $100 million and moved to temporary headquarters in Queens in 2002 while construction began.
But some pledges for money fell through. Construction encountered problems. The financial crisis hit, fund-raising stammered, designs were pared, new leaders cycled through and plans for an opening were delayed a half dozen times.
Eventually, a new board took over with ideas for a new mandate that would explore Africa’s art, and economic and policy issues.
Thelma Golden, director and chief curator of The Studio Museum in Harlem, said the Center’s complicated history is an important part of its identity.
“In many ways this institution tells the story of what it takes to create an institution,” Golden said. “It involves complex relationships to create a narrative for how an institution can and does reflect the contributions of many people to come to fruition.”
Iweala arrived five years ago with a background that isn’t in the arts — among other things, he’s an accomplished author and medical doctor. Yet because he has a foot in both America and Nigeria, he embodies an institution that wants to mingle both worlds, Golden said.
“Uzo is a visionary and I believe he is charting a truly 21st century path, and one I imagine is going to create a model for the future,” she said.
Iweala was born in Washington D.C. to Nigerian parents and bounced between Nigeria and the U.S. with a solid grounding in both nations. He went to Harvard and trained as a doctor at Columbia University. He co-founded a Nigeria-based magazine called Ventures Africa, collected awards for his novel, “Beasts of No Nation,” and wrote two other books. He founded an organization in Nigeria that promotes private sector investment in health services.
The Africa Center, he said, “feels like it is part and parcel of my identity.”
As a new CEO, Iweala’s first mission was to get people into the building. He started by opening Teranga, luring patrons to view art on the walls of the restaurant that serves West African food with a menu designed by Senegalese chef Pierre Thiam.
“One of the best ways of getting people together is showing who you are. And food is culture, food is policy, food is economics,” Iweala said.
The center was finally set to host public programming. Workers readied the debut exhibition, “African/American: Making the Nation’s Table,” a collaboration with the Museum of Food and Drink celebrating contributions of Black chefs and food and drink producers.
But then Covid-19 began spreading, and the exhibition was postponed.
The Center was hobbled by the pandemic, yet it managed to find a foothold. The plaza in front of the building became a venue for music and dancing. And as the nation reeled from the police killing of George Floyd, the Center unveiled a 45-foot-tall display of white letters spelling “Black Lives Matters” affixed to the outside of windows on the first three floors.
The display was controversial, one city official said.
“I knew people were going to have a fit, and they did, and he just did it anyway,” said New York City Council member Gale Brewer, speaking of Iweala. “I think he’s a superstar.”
Once the spread of Covid slowed, the Center picked up where it left off, opening the “African/American” exhibition as well as a mix of virtual and in-person policy programming.
An exhibition earlier this year called “States of Becoming” offered work from 17 contemporary artists of African descent who have lived and worked in the United States. The idea was shaped by the independent curator Fitsum Shebeshe, who moved from Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, to Baltimore. Many of the works focused on themes of assimilation and colliding cultures.
“They understood what we were trying to do,” said Shebeshe, speaking of The Africa Center leadership. “I view this center as a space that’s creating community.”
Iweala wants to better integrate the space into its surroundings — not a straightforward mission for an institution that sits at the intersection of Black Harlem, Spanish Harlem, Little Senegal and the posh Upper East Side, not to mention its positioning along Museum Mile.
“It’s both an invitation and a challenge,” Iweala said.
The Center has partnered on projects with the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which along with other institutions has received loans from the Center’s small permanent collection. (The Mutu piece is on loan to the New Museum’s retrospective of her work.)
For now, between exhibitions, The Africa Center and its restaurant are open only on weekends and for scheduled events, an indicator that the audience has significant room to grow. Preparations are being made for Africa Day, May 25.
“Success isn’t necessarily measured just in whether we had a blockbuster show by a superfamous artist,” Iweala said. “But are you reorienting people in their understanding of what it means to be from this continent? And also what is the importance of the continent of Africa and its people in shaping both the history of the world and how the world is changing?”
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