The large brick warehouse at Eleventh Avenue and 28th Street that's home to Chelsea Mini-Storage looks drab from the outside. One would think it contained nothing more surprising than a few thousand futons, some forgotten college textbooks, and maybe a frustrated studio-dweller in search of "alternative" housing. But a twelve-foot-tall wooden statue of a soccer player at the end of the first-floor hallway is a visitor's first oversize clue that the building houses the African Art Center, a thriving pocket of African commerce and culture.
The quiet, fluorescent-lit hallway opens into a bustling scene that's straight out of Nairobi. Men and women in bright dashikis and batik dresses, speaking Bamana, Sarakole, or Bamun, clamor about the loading dock inspecting a dizzying array of imported products, from carved masks to Ashanti fertility dolls to musical instruments. Beyond the dock, the animated crowd spills over into a warren of narrow corridors, where overstuffed storage rooms double as market stalls and traders mill about, greeting friends and striking deals. From a communal dining area, the smell of chicken with rice and peanut sauce wafts out. And juju music, punctuated with live drumming, accompanies the commotion -- except when Muslim vendors head over to a makeshift mosque, remove their shoes, and pray.
The African Art Center, which is to African decorative art what 47th Street is to diamonds, has been around for three years, since one floor of the building was customized for the merchants. "It was not easy," explains the founder and president, Mamadou Dibassy. "I was here by myself, and I watched people come one by one."
Since that time, it's become a critical social network for immigrants. "When I'm living here," says Kaba Mohamed Karamo, a Guinean, in shaky English, "I feel like Africa." It's also become an essential resource for collectors. "Every dealer in the U.S. who is worth his salt has been here," says Ian Sutherland, a Manhattan trader. All transactions are African-style: Written contracts are rare; personal reputation is vital.
Occasionally, merchants make concessions to American ways. Zoumana Bamba, a stylishly dressed importer of djembe drums born in Côte d'Ivoire, is sometimes known around the Chelsea Mini-Storage as "King Drum," a reference to his aristocratic lineage. He's no street musician, but for a potential customer, he'll condescend to pound out a short rhythm, though his mother would disapprove. "It's not easy in the United States to survive," he says in his own defense. "You have to pay the bills."