Did you know that the London borough of Southwark has one of the biggest African Christian communities in the world outside Africa? Photographer Chloe Dewe Mathews discusses her latest project 

Freedom Centre International, Peckham
Recce shot of the Freedom Centre International church on Rye Lane in Peckham, Southwark

I was brought up going to church on Sunday. The smell of incense, uncomfortable pews and the sad sight of a fifteen-person congregation grinding through hymns without an organ are my abiding memories. I was therefore thrilled to arrive at Liberty House Church, my first shoot in Peckham (five minutes walk from my house) to find a full audio visual extravaganza of coloured lights, a sound desk with eight piece band, projection screens and two hundred worshippers filling the former ironmongery.

Although I’ve been a South Londoner all my life, much of my recent work has been done overseas, most notably in Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan and southern Russia. When the team at Tate Modern commissioned me earlier this year to make a new body of work responding to the area of South London in which we both operate, I was delighted.

Beginning in November 2013, my brief was to reference Tate Modern’s new extension and observe changes that are taking place elsewhere in the area. The modification of ex-industrial buildings into art spaces is now commonplace; even at the end of my road artist Raqib Shaw has converted an old sausage factory into his studio, and Anish Kapoor’s headquarters occupy a former shutter-making workshop only five minutes away. Of course, Tate Modern itself is a converted power station; however in recent years, it’s not the transition of space from industry to culture that has caught my intention.

Mountain of Fire and Miracles Ministries, Camberwell
Recce shot outside the Mountain of Fire and Miracles Ministries on Camberwell Road, Southwark

There are over 240 new black majority churches in Southwark, more than double all other types of church in the area. Recent research by Roehampton University suggests that this represents the greatest concentration of African Christianity in the world, outside of Africa. The churches of the borough are set up in old factories, warehouses and bingo halls. Ex-industrial buildings are chosen for practical reasons: they are cheap and able to accommodate large numbers of people, who can be as loud as they like without upsetting neighbours.

I have noticed the number of these churches grow rapidly in recent years, and become fascinated by them. As well as the role they play in the energetic street life of the borough, I am interested in the very distinctive style of worship they practice. Over the next few months, in photographs to be published this spring, I will be observing and recording the performative and often expressive way in which the services are held, and in doing so, will try to discover more about the ideology of these churches. Do you live in Southwark and attend an African church? What kind of impact do you think they have on the area? I’d be interested to hear what you think.

Tate Modern and Youis a publication regularly produced in partnership with a neighbourhood or section of the local community, in collaboration with an artist. It aims to make stronger links with different communities across the London boroughs of Southwark and Lambeth


I find this a really interesting project and greatly look forward to seeing more photos. How exciting!@


Thanks Bryan! We're looking forward to sharing Chloe's photos soon! Anjuli, Regeneration and Community Partnerships, Tate Modern

I was involved in the Roehampton project as the local authority rep on the reference panel that supported the work of Dr Andrew Rogers and his team. His report is well worth a read and you'll find it via the Roehampton link in Chloe's blog. It's one of the best pieces of work I've seen on this subject.

I now look forward to seeing Chloe's results as they will offer a further unique insight into this vibrant part of Southwark and London life. It will also help to counter some of the misconceptions that are bound to arise when individuals or communities, and their way of being who and what they are, are largely unknown to those of us on the outside looking in.

Chloe's work to date has been superb and her partnership with Tate Modern is a creative marriage of hearts and minds, dare I say, made in heaven.

I hope this project will mean that there is more conversation between the African churches and other local churches - we need to understand each other better!

One of the best features of living in South London is travelling on buses on a Sunday, with everyone off to their different churches in their different 'uniforms'. You even hear people discussing God and Jesus - so refreshing.

Thank you Marion! We're looking forward to sharing more about the project on the blog soon - hopefully this will help begin some more conversations about churches in the area. Anjuli, Regeneration and Community Partnerships, Tate Modern

I am the author of the Being Built Together report which was published by the University of Roehampton in June 2013. Over a period of two years, our team visited new black majority churches around the Borough of Southwark, attending worship services and interviewing pastors. The project was in response to awareness on the part of churches, local communities and authorities, that new black majority churches were growing fast, and it would be helpful to know more about them.

When visiting the churches on a Sunday morning, as per Marion’s comment below, I discovered I was on the ‘church bus’ from Lewisham going up to Southwark, seeing more and more people get on in their Sunday best. The churches we visited were mostly African majority and Pentecostal, often energetic and exuberant in worship. It was fun to be there. We described in words and statistics what we found, so I am looking forward to the different perspective that Chloe’s photographs can bring to our understanding and engagement with these churches.

As Choe notes, we found some remarkable concentrations of churches around Peckham Rye, the Old Kent Road, and to a lesser extent around Camberwell Green and the Elephant and Castle. A key issue for many of the churches is finding suitable premises. This was addressed in the report through making recommendations about premises and planning for all parties concerned – the churches, the historic churches, local communities, and the Council. We are looking to continue working on this issue at both the policy and practical level.

Too often there is a lack of understanding about new black majority churches. What I find very encouraging about Chloe’s project is that in recording the life of the churches through photographs, we will gain new insight into the churches that we describe in the report as a gift to the church, the borough and the city.

Thank you for commenting, Andrew. The research you did has been absolutely invaluable for the project. In fact it was the reason we felt there was something very concrete to respond to. I've also been thoroughly enjoying the church visits and have been made to feel very welcome throughout. I look forward to showing you the publication and exhibition at the Tate Modern in June.