From January 15 to February 12 1977, thousands of artists, writers, musicians, activists and scholars from Africa and the black diaspora descended on Lagos, Nigeria, for the 2nd World Black Festival of African Arts and Culture (FESTAC ‘77). Held eleven years after the First World Festival of Negro Arts in Dakar Senegal, and eight years after First Pan African Cultural Festival (PANAF) in Algiers, FESTAC ‘77 was part of a larger body of transatlantic cultural exchange that dated back to the Pan-African Congress in Paris 1919.
These festivals form part of several intersecting and contradictory histories. As a showcase for the organising states and participating artists these events functioned as antechambers of diplomacy, focusing attention through the prism of cultural creation on the issues at stake internationally on a number of levels. These included relations between young African nations; between North Africa and Sub-Saharan Africa; between independent states and liberation movements in countries that were still colonised; between Africa and the Americas; between European states and their former colonies; between international organisations and bilateral cooperation arrangements.
Like its predecessors, FESTAC ‘77 was built on the ideals of the Harlem Renaissance, the Negritude movement and Pan-Africanism. But where Dakar 1966 manifested as a Franco-Senegalese platform for Negritude’s ideals of black culture and the OAU-mandated PANAF ‘69 looked to culture as tool of liberation and nation-building, the organisers of FESTAC ‘77 sought a middle-ground between those positions.
Funded largely from the Nigerian military government’s new-found oil wealth, FESTAC ‘77 was part of an ambitious national agenda that saw the country embarking on a course of modernisation that reflected its prominence as black Africa’s political and economic powerhouse. Nigeria spent several billion dollars to organise the festival, a spectacle that would at once heal the nation (recently traumatised by the Biafran War, 1967-70) and establish it as the anchor of the black world.