flat 70 Celebrates Black Artists By Taking Over London's Billboards

The family-run art space speaks to Vanessa Peterson about reclaiming the city they’re losing, community activism, and inspiring others to unite and resist

BY Vanessa Peterson, Anthony Badu AND Senam Badu in Interviews | 26 MAR 21

flat 70 is a non-profit, family-run arts space established by siblings Senam and Anthony Badu in February 2020, just before the COVID-19 pandemic changed the landscape of London’s arts scene. Their Reclaim Space (2021) project celebrates 15 Black artists by taking over JCDecaux’s digital billboards, spread across the heart of London, including their home neighbourhood of Elephant and Castle. Each digital screen has a QR code that passers-by can scan, enabling anyone to participate in the walking tour. I spoke with Anthony and Senam to hear more about the reasons they created flat 70, the politics embedded in their work and how their Reclaim Space project could be a transferable model internationally in the face of rising rents and change in the city.

Vanessa Peterson: What is flat 70 and where does the name originate?

Anthony Badu: We’re a family-run, non-profit organization reclaiming space in Elephant & Castle, south London, for artists, cultural workers and local communities of colour. We opened last year, in February, in the same month we found out that we’d lost our family home to the Aylesbury Regeneration Scheme – an extensive redevelopment of the social-housing estate where we grew up. One door closed and another door opened.

'Reclaim Space', 2021, installation view. Courtesy: JCDecaux UK

Senam Badu: We named it after the flat we grew up in on the Aylesbury Estate. When the council took the keys, we took the door number off the flat, and you can see it now outside our current space.

AB: Our community has been resisting regeneration in our local area since 2001, and I’ve been actively working with leaseholders, including my parents, for four or five years as an advocate and organizer. I’m now liaising with other stakeholders to make sure they can stay in the local area.

VP: What does it mean to create a space in a part of London you have many emotional ties to, especially as it’s undergoing rapid change?

AB: Rather than using the term ‘safe space’, we like to refer to flat 70 as a ‘brave space’ – especially when you consider that our childhood home was taken away from us as part of the ‘regeneration’ of an area that’s been brutalized by gentrification and social cleansing. Our parents lived and worked in this area for the majority of their adult lives, and they served their community. We’re picking up their mantle and serving the community in our own way by increasing access to art.

SB: We hope that, with flat 70, we can provide opportunities for marginalized artists or cultural workers to develop their craft. We want to celebrate these artists across generations.

two young black girls sat on a motorbike
Saman Archive, Two school girls on a moto, Anloga, 1990. Courtesy: flat 70

VP: This brings me to your billboard project, Reclaim Space, which gives visibility to Black artists. This seems timely given current political discourse in the UK, in the aftermath of the Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests last summer. How did you conceive the idea of Reclaim Space?

SB: We had been in talks with JCDecaux, who we have partnered with on this project, for a few months. Last month, we managed to get the go-ahead. Over the past few years, Anthony was living in Ghana and building connections with artists living there, some of whom are included in Reclaim Space, like Hanson Akatti and David Alabo. The attention brought back to the BLM movement last summer meant that we saw an opportunity for getting bigger brands and organizations involved in doing something more than simply posting a black square on social media. Reclaim Space is about us staking a claim in the community that we grew up in and were forced out of, but it’s also about making sure that the artists we’re working with can stake their own claims. This project gives them an opportunity to show their work on a large scale to thousands of people passing through central London. We’re inspired by the things they do and the themes in their work and we want to celebrate them. 

AB: Our community has the resources at our fingertips when it comes to imagining new futures, new systems of countering the logic that devalues, erases and exploits Black artists and cultural workers – especially by leaning on the expertise of previous generations. We don’t have to build a new system from scratch. Before we did anything as an organization, we held a roundtable so that we could seek counsel from people we admired. 

Ajamu X, Gay Pride, Brockwell Park, 1993. Courtesy: flat 70

VP: Do you think initiatives like Reclaim Space, and the roundtables you’ve organized, could travel internationally in the future? 

AB: Our particular interest is the intersection of art and urban design. When we talk about holding space to facilitate artistic, therapeutic and redistributive exchange, it’s important to acknowledge that the issue of global capital extracting the raw resource of land from communities and privatising public space is even worse in the Global South. We’re intrigued by the idea of being a mobile organization. In fact, we only have our current space for 12 months – which, in itself, speaks to the nature of space and land rights – so we’d love to relocate and collaborate with people in Senegal or Nigeria, for instance.

VP: The fact you have managed to acquire the space for just one year highlights a problem that many artists and creative workers face in London due to relentless regeneration and rising rents. How do you feel about the future? 

SB: Anthony had to become a warrior overnight: for the past five or six years, he’s been an organizer, a shoulder to cry on and an advocate. One of our main goals is to act as a repository for the knowledge we have developed and to share it with others, so that they can continue to live in the places where they grew up.

AB: Hopefully, Reclaim Space will inspire people to reclaim the city they’re losing and, from their various perspectives, to unite and resist.

Main image: 'Reclaim Space', 2021, installation view. Courtesy: JCDecaux UK 

Vanessa Peterson is associate editor of frieze. She lives in London, UK. 

Anthony is a writer, social impact producer & filmmaker working between Accra & London. He has worked with broadcasters, festivals, charities, galleries and universities. Raised & based on the Aylesbury Estate until his home was repossessed in 2020, Anthony continues to be at service to Aylesbury residents with over 5 years’ experience as an advocate & community organiser.

Senam is a marketing professional with over six years of experience in the advertising sectors of Paris and London. She has worked with a range of multinational brands and delivered global campaigns across FMCG, technology & hospitality.