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Archie Shepp’s Shirt Suggests

By Dominique Malaquais and Cédric Vincent

The moment has stayed with every person who witnessed it. Archie Shepp improvising live on the street, surrounded by hundreds of onlookers in a trance induced by his otherworldly beats. The place: Algiers. The occasion: PANAF, the first Panafrican Cultural Festival, organised in 1969 by the Algerian government. Tens of thousands of people attended, hailing from across the African world, continental and diasporic alike.

Théo Robichet, a Guevarist filmmaker from Paris, recorded the scene. In his viewfinder Shepp appears in a shirt made of printed cloth bearing the logo of another festival held three years earlier in Dakar: the First World Festival of Negro Arts (FESMAN). For those who know the story of these two great pan African events, the jazzman’s choice of outfit may come as a surprise.

Much has been made of the fact that PANAF was a rebuke to FESMAN, a rejection of everything for which the Dakar festival stood: Léopold Senghor’s philosophy of Négritude and his admiration for French culture and politics, most notably. And, indeed, the Algiers event was attended by many for whom Senghor’s vision was anathema. The philosopher Stanislas Adotevi and the writer Henri Lopez are cases in point.

Still, Shepp’s shirt suggests, there was more to the story.

Close attention to the relationship between PANAF and FESMAN and to links both bear to two other key pan African festivals, both held in the 1970s, shows that easy categorisations are just that: easy, and for that reason, wanting. The other two festivals are FESTAC, the second incarnation of FESMAN, held in Lagos in 1977, and Zaïre 74, which took place in Kinshasa.

Each of the four festivals was a major event, remembered to this day as a richly singular moment in the history of the country where it took place. By focusing on the festivals as one-off events, however, a great deal is lost. As much as individual moments, they were links in a chain, intimately tied to one another in terms of structure, form and goals. People, symbols and modes of representation travelled from one to another, creating a powerful call-and-response effect. This effect, however, tends to be overlooked – or at any rate underplayed – in present-day accounts.

All four festivals were conceived, each in its own way, as a celebration of an Africa yet to come. They were profoundly hopeful events, crafted with an eye toward imagining the future of the countries where they were held and, ultimately, of the continent at large. Individually and as a cluster, they were seen to function as laboratories for the development of new, continent-wide politics and cultures.

Of course there were differences between the Dakar, Algiers, Lagos and Kinshasa festivals, expressed in the colloquia, exhibitions and performances around which each event was built. Still, the similarities are striking.

Take the Dakar and Algiers festivals. At both, a grand exhibition of masks and statuary from across the continent was mounted. Given the focus that has often been put on differences between the two festivals, one could perhaps expect that the works shown would have been quite different. In fact, many of the same objects were exhibited in both contexts, suggesting a strong sense of continuity. The same is true of performances. At both festivals (as at FESTAC), national delegations were invited to participate and present highlights of their country’s culture. In many instances, the same troupes appeared in both settings. This is noteworthy because, in theory at least, the political intentions of the two festivals were quite different. Dakar, in Senghor’s image, was a rather staid and, in many respects, patriarchal event, whereas Algiers cast itself as a revolutionary moment. Still, in both cases, an official delegation was present from Cameroon, which at the time was ruled with an iron fist by Ahmadou Ahidjo, a staunch ally of France.

Such ties between the two festivals help to explain why Archie Shepp appears in Algiers wearing the Dakar festival’s logo: whether consciously or not, he is speaking to a dialogue between two of the most galvanising cultural events held in Africa in the decade following independence.

Similar links tie the Kinshasa festival to its Dakar and Algiers predecessors. The 1974 event, remembered above all for the “Rumble in the Jungle”, a stunning upset match between heavyweight boxing champion George Foreman and Muhammad Ali, was not a festival per se, but nonetheless was presented as such by the leader of Zaire at the time, Mobutu Sese Seko. In order to market the event as a festival in the lineage of FESMAN and PANAF, Mobutu borrowed liberally from the roster of symbols and ideas deployed in Dakar and Algiers.

Performers who had been invited to Dakar and Algiers, and who were slated to appear in Lagos, were brought to Kinshasa with great pomp. A case in point was Miriam Makeba, whose performance on a Kinshasa stage on the occasion of the festival is immortalised in Leon Gast’s famous film When We Were Kings (1996). A mask highlighted in the first two festivals, notably on stamps and pamphlet covers, found its way onto furniture designed for the luxury lounge at the heart of the “Rumble” stadium, where VIPs mingled before the match. Massive construction was undertaken to transform the centre of the city, precisely as was done in Dakar and later in Lagos, the goal being to present Kinshasa as the core of a modern Africa facing toward the future. Like Senghor, who built his entire festival around a celebration of himself and his philosophy of Négritude, Mobutu dreamed the Kinshasa festival as an incarnation of “Authenticité”, the banner under which he ruled. And, patterning himself on Algeria, which held the first pan African festival at the behest of the Organisation of African Unity, Mobutu travelled to Addis Ababa to request (and receive) the OAU’s permission to hold his own festival, which he billed as the second PANAF. (The festival, which was to have taken place in 1972, never in fact materialised).

Between the Lagos festival and its Dakar and Algiers predecessors there were close links as well. Here again, Miriam Makeba was on the guest list – indeed, she was the festival’s star – and, as in Algiers, Mobutu’s Zaire was on hand as one of the official country delegations. Ahidjo’s Cameroon was there as well. In Algiers, several anti-colonial and revolutionary movements (Mozambique’s FRELIMO and Angola’s MPLA, among others) were present. In Lagos, this was the case too. Most strikingly, the FESTAC logo, a depiction of the world-famous Idia mask pillaged from the Benin kingdom by British troops in 1897, was also Nigeria’s official logo when it took part in the Dakar festival – this despite the fact that the later Lagos event sought to present itself as a distinct departure from both the Dakar and the Algiers festivals.

This type of back-and-forth, with people, objects and ideas moving between events, is characteristic of the four festivals. The story of the Dakar, Algiers, Lagos and Kinshasa festivals is one of entanglement. This entanglement, in turn, mirrors the extraordinary complexity of a time when, casting off the chains of colonialism, African nations were seeking to construct themselves in relation to (and at times in opposition to) one another, while simultaneously imagining the possibilities of a continent united beyond national boundaries. Synergies and contradictions abound, crisscrossing one another and, in so doing, speaking to a history infinitely more complex than is allowed for by official accounts.

From the entanglement at the core of this history a picture emerges less of a series of festivals that followed one another than of a single, evolving event: one vast and shape-shifting festival that travelled across time and space. Considered from this vantage point, what looks initially like a simple, teleological progression leading from Dakar to Lagos comes to be seen instead as a type of Möbius strip, folding over itself to produce multiple forms and meanings. Ideas, symbols and processes recur as the strip unfolds, taking on new appearances. Thus the question of Négritude, ever present, even – indeed, perhaps, especially – where reference to it is explicitly avoided. Thus too, the matter of North Africa’s inclusion within the broader construct of a pan African world: the subject comes back, again and again, in multiple guises.

To think in these terms about the great pan African festivals of the 1960s and ’70s is to highlight an aspect of the post-independence years that is too often elided: the fact that they were not only moments of exuberance, but also of profound and ongoing questioning. Such questioning took a range of different forms. To a certain extent, it was built into events like the four festivals under consideration. At the same time, it was a by-product of their organisation. While each festival functioned as an official forum for celebrating the regime on whose watch it took place, simultaneously – and at times wholly beyond the reach of the organisers – it provided a space for the deployment of counter-narratives. In Dakar, the absence of key political leaders and intellectuals, Sékou Touré and Cheikh Anta Diop most notably, spoke to the contentious nature of Négritude as a model for imagining Africa’s place in the world. (Diop’s absence was all the more striking as the festival organisers awarded him a major literary prize.) In Lagos, a series of counter-events organised by the musician Fela Kuti stood as a stark rebuke to the petro-naira-fuelled dictatorship of General Olusegun Obasanjo and the pan African unity it claimed to represent. Algiers in 1969, while it is portrayed in hindsight as the world capital of revolution, was also (like Kinshasa, though clearly the situations were different) a space of increasing state violence and, thus, of nascent dissidence.

In recent years, both Senegal and Algeria have staged repeats of their historic festivals. And Nigeria is planning celebrations on the 40th anniversary of FESTAC, much as Kinshasa commemorated the passage of four decades since the famed “Rumble in the Jungle”. In each of these instances, the festivals are being commemorated to highly practical ends. There is much talk of pan African ideals and pursuits, but, in truth, what is being mounted are little more than bids to foster political goodwill and attract economic investment. While, certainly, such goals undergirded the organisation of the original four festivals, what is lost in these anniversary events is precisely the kind of entanglement that is the focus of these pages: a thickness that speaks of unity, or more properly of its quest, and, simultaneously, of the faults which such quests inevitably reveal.

This piece features in the Chimurenga Chronic: Muzmin (May 2015). To purchase in print, or as a PDF, head to our online shop.

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