The house that Khadambi built

The interior of an unassuming London house that has been turned into a unique work of art by a Kenyan artist is now poised to become a national treasure

Obscured by trees and looking somewhat down at heel, it is the sort of house you wouldn’t normally give a second look at. But step inside and you are transported into another world – walls, ceilings and doors are adorned with elaborate wooden fretwork, painted motifs decorate the floor and the fixtures and furnishings of everyday life double up as ornaments to create a rich visual feast that takes time to digest, there is so much to see.

It is the work of the Kenyan artist and writer Khadambi Asalache who bought the house in the early ‘80s and spent the next 20 years re-inventing it as part of an artistic journey that took in African, Islamic and British art and design.

When he died three years ago at the age of 71, he willed his home to the National Trust, which now hopes to raise up to £4 million to preserve it for future generations.

‘His house is a truly special place which celebrates diversity and through this we are presented with an important opportunity to develop our understanding of contemporary British culture,’ said Dame Fiona Reynolds, the Trust’s director-general.

Asalache, a relatively unknown figure in Britain, was part of the African literary renaissance of the 1960s, penning the best selling novel A Calabash of Life in 1967. He was also a poet and his collection Sunset in Navaisha appeared in 1973.

He had arrived in Britain in 1960 having studied architecture and fine art in Kenya and continental Europe and, like many educated Africans, made ends meet by juggling a variety of jobs, including shifts on the BBC African service and teaching Swahili, the Kenya lingua franca. After taking an Mphil in mathematics in the 1970s, he became a civil servant in Whitehall.

It was this job that led him to buy the terraced early Victorian house at 575 Wandsworth Rd, south London, in 1981. ‘Its main attraction was that it was on the 77a bus route which could take him to the Treasury, where he worked,’ recalls his partner, the basket maker Susie Thomson.

‘It had been squatted and was a bit run down, so it was also very cheap.’

Ironically, his labour of love was embarked upon for very practical reasons. ‘The basement was very damp and he decided to cover it up with decorative panelling, which he designed.’ explains Thomson.

Drawing on his knowledge of architecture and art and inspired by a poetic vision of the world, he began extending the scheme to the rest of the house, building up his skills as he went along.

‘Khadambi was entirely self-taught in fretwork,’ adds Thomson. ‘It came purely out of his own inspiration.’

For his raw materials, Asalache would walk the streets looking for skips that might contain discarded wood like door panels. Later odd bits of furniture, wine boxes and small quantities of bought pine were brought into service

Then, using a humble plasterboard blade to carve with, he would create intricate friezes of geometric shapes, animals, flowers and birds, sometimes working up to 14 hours a day if he had the time.

‘When I first saw the interior, I was completely entranced by its beauty, the effect was extraordinary,’ says Thomson who first met the artist at one of his social gatherings. The dinner parties had become regular events as more and more people heard about the treasure trove. ‘People would ask to bring their friends around – even the man who came to read the gas metre.’

Asalache had visited the Great Mosque of Cordoba in Spain on several occasions and particularly admired Moorish art for its balance and inclusiveness. Its inspiration is striking in every part of the house, mixed in with an array of other styles, from Beatrix Potter-like nursery motifs and bold African wall prints to the wooden décor found in traditional houses in Kenyan coastal towns.

What could have turned out to be a messy pastiche is a triumph of harmony that, according to Giles Waterfield of the National Heritage Memorial Fund, is both compelling and seductive: ‘It has, still a very strong sense of the man who created these interiors. It is such a gentle place, so soft and welcoming, and yet at the same time it could be seen as a statement of independence and individuality in terms of ethnic origin.’

The National Trust has already committed £1 million to the project but is seeking to raise between £2 million to £4 million bring it into public use. This could take up to 18 months and may involve the purchase of the adjoining house.

‘To maximise the benefits of acquiring Khadambi Asalache’s house the National Trust would consider buying additional premises close by which  would enable the extension of a community programme and provide a centre to offer a forum for discussion and study on issues relating to the man and his house,’ explained a spokesperson.

Elsie Owusu, founder of the Society of Black Architects, believes 575 Wandsworth Rd to be of international significance. ‘It could be described as an embodiment of the social and political and artistic history of the British colonial experience in the 20th century,’ she said. ‘In addition, the breadth of the interest in architecture and design ranges from African, American, to Moghul, European and Islamic. The fact that is hidden in an “ordinary” English city terrace is all the more intriguing.’

Black History 365/Spring 2009/ www.black-history-month.co.uk

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