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.
With delegates from more than 50 countries in attendance, FESTAC’77 was also a threshing ground for international politics. It reflected the ongoing Cold War and its role in liberation movements on the continent and highlighted C.I.A’s involvement in the production of culture across the developing world.
Like the PANAF in Algiers, which encouraged solidarity between the Black Panthers, African liberation movements and the Palestinian Al Fata, FESTAC’77 helped legitimise Frontline revolutionaries such as Namibia’s SWAPO and ANC (South Africa), while showing support to the newly independent MPLA (Angola) and Frelimo (Mozambique) involved in civil wars at home. Following the Soweto uprising of June 1976, the artistic collaboration, at FESTAC ’77, between ANC, PAC and SSRC members, played an important role in uniting these rival factions of the South African liberation movement and led to the founding of the ANC’s influential Department of Arts and Culture.
Similarly, the tensions between Lt-General Olusegun Obasanjo, Nigeria’s Head of State and Grand Patron of the event, and Senegal’s Poet-President Leopold Senghor who abdicated his position as FESTAC’77’s co-patron and virtually boycotted the festival, highlighted the complex interplay between colonial and national power, transnational trade groups such as OPEC (of which Nigeria became a member in 1971) and neo-colonial networks such as Francafrique.
At the same time FESTAC’77 provided an opportunity for a myriad of personal and artist encounters that allows for an understanding of diaspora less as a historical condition than a set of practices; the claims, correspondences and collaborations through which black intellectuals pursue a variety of international alliances. These manifested as part of the official programme as well as through counter-FESTAC initiatives such Fela Kuti’s Shrine in Lagos which served a conduit of dissent and a meeting point for artists and thinkers from around the world. This highlights Africa’s role in defining its diaspora and inversely, the diaspora’s role in the invention of Africa. It demonstrates that Africa is as much as a geographic reality as it is a construct, whose boundaries shift according to the prevailing configurations of global racial identities and power.
FESTAC’77 was all these ideas, ideals and ideologies performed live on the world stage. Nearly forty years later, the memory of the event has all but faded. The National Theatre established before FESTAC’77 as the “exemplary centre” not only of festival activities, but also of new Nigeria, stands as a reminder of a failed political and cultural project.
The official archive of FESTAC’ 77 is kept at the Lagos based Centre for Black and African Arts and Civilization (CBAAC), a vast resource of knowledge, culture and history of the black world hidden away in cardboard boxes or shelved in endless series and stacks, but also a space frozen in time. Despite its size and scope, CBAAC is largely an institutional collection, seldom visited or accessed by the general public and thus largely untouched; monumentalised but seldom re-engaged.
But the real failure regarding FESTAC’77 is not its turbulent history but rather our failure to acknowledge the meaning of that history and its relationship to the contemporary.
How does FESTAC’77 allow us to reflect on Chinafrica; the EU immigration fence across the Sahel; Afro-Arab relations after the Arab Spring and fall of Gaddafi’s?
How can we draw on FESTAC’77’s history to better understand the relation between oil and spectacle in a world where Gulf States, from Dubai to Abu Dhabi, are positioning themselves as cultural hubs via biennales, festivals, art fairs and new international galleries?
What role did FESTAC’77 play in the creation of the “Lagos Plan of Action for the Economic Development of Africa” (1980-2000), and how much of the old plan survives in NEPAD (2001)?
How did the controversy surrounding the Head of Queen Idia, the official symbol of the festival, provided a catalyst of ongoing debates on the restitution of African artefacts and human remains currently held in Western institutions? How does this relate to the conundrum of culture as heritage and pastness?
If we trace a lineage from World Fairs through FESTAC ’77 to today’s global biennales, what is the role of National Culture? How does FESTAC’77’s manipulation of culture to represent diversity speak to the current ethnic and religious tensions in the region?
And finally, how does FESTAC’77 provide an alternative narration to history that could help us not only understand the inherent role of art in politics but also reactivate our political relation to the practice of art in the realm of global politics?
In short, the question we ask is: can a past that the present has not yet caught up with be summoned to haunt the present as an alternative? What is important here is not the reiteration of the actual past, but the persistence of what never actually happened, but might have.
The Pan-African Festival of Algiers William Klein, France/Algeria 1969
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