By Sean Barlow. Photographs by Banning Eyre.
The New Africa Center, formerly known as the Museum for African Art, threw itself a grand launch party last Thursday in Harlem. The new institution will continue to focus on art, but also on the pressing issues and opportunities of the “new Africa.” That expression was the mantra of entrepreneur Mo Ibrahim’s keynote address, a rallying cry to Americans to join a continental reinvention already in progress. It was also the title of the first song sung by musical headliner Youssou N’Dour, in his first NYC performance since his recent foray into Senegalese politics. At one point, Youssou was joined on stage by Harry Belafonte, Bono, Jesse Jackson and Mo Ibrahim to sing “Happy Birthday” to Hadeel Ibrahim, Mo’s daughter and the organizer of this remarkable event. Youssou took the occasion to once again sing “New Africa,” lest the evening’s resonant theme be lost on anyone. This reborn institution is determined to heighten the profile of the new Africa in the United States, and if the organization’s leaders can continue to produce at the level this evening promised, the future looks bright indeed.
A Wall St. Journal article from earlier in the year tells the story of how the Museum’s fundraising efforts to raise the tens of millions of dollars required to complete the internal fit-out of the building’s shell at 110th St. and 5th Ave. had fallen short. So the new thinking is to broaden the mission and support base by including more of a policy and business focus.
In its own words, the New Africa Center is “a world renowned African art museum at its core. The New Africa Center includes centers for policy, performance, education, collaboration with the intention to become the premier destination dialogue on critical issues of the day facing the development, understanding, and advancement of the African continent, its citizens, and its art. The event took place in the august, inspiring, and still unfinished site of the New Africa Center. The cavernous space was beautifully lit, and rows of lights laying along the concrete floors led visitors on a tour of the 4-story space. No big African themed event in NYC is complete without Angelique Kidjo! She opened the program with a beautiful solo vocal invocation. Then as Sahr Ngaujah’s (a.k.a. Fela on Broadway) brought The Fela! Band to the stage with three Fela! dancers, afrobeat reverberated off the high walls, and Angelique came out to the front of the crowd and pulled people one-by-one to the concrete dance floor.
As Youssou’s band set up, Sudanese-British businessman and philanthropist Mo Ibrahim took to the stage. He made his fortune at the birth of the cell phone industry in Africa and has chosen good governance on the continent as his overriding focus, awarding an annual prize to, for instance, presidents for stepping down peacefully after losing elections. Mo Ibrahim spoke passionately about how Africa is a continent on the rise—with six of the world’s ten fastest growing economies, a growing middle class, and improving transparency in government. But he bemoaned the fact that in his travels around the continent he meets mainly Chinese, Indian, Brazilian business people but not Americans and he said America was unwisely stepping away from Africa. He said the New Africa Center intended to change that. And his daughter, Hadeel Ibrahim, who is the co-Chair of the Center’s Board of Trustees and by all accounts a force of nature reinvigorating the major stakeholders to get reactivated in the project and enlisting new players, announced that the New Africa Center will open sometime in 2014. We look forward to helping the New Africa Center achieve its exciting potential.
The party continued past midnight, and amid this star-studded night, full of fabulous music and high-flying rhetoric, a lasting memory for me was watching Harry Belafonte seated to the right of the stage, his eyes glued on Youssou with a big smile on his face. With Bono standing just behind him, Harry seemed the dean of a potent gathering of artist/activists. Harry, never a man to mince words, had noted in his own brief remarks that “what could have been a disaster” had become an occasion of great celebration. Amen.