“We march towards renaissance,” the ever-eloquent Ben Enwonwu wrote in his essay An African View of Art for the Second World Black and African Festival of Arts and Culture in 1977. His essay and similar ones published in the official catalogue for FESTAC ’77 embodied the defining spirit of the 60s and 70s for most Black people in the world. There was pride, knowledge and confidence.
For people of African descent in the diaspora, at that time, embracing African lifestyle was ‘woke’. Reconnection with their root was paramount; some artists and writers changed their names to indicate their African identity. As it is happening now, that is the Afro-centred lifestyle and Africa inspired cultural movement in diaspora countries, 1977 was also the year or the peak of a period of cultural renaissance. “Africa became a mirror for self-realization and self-actualisation: braids and beads, Africa-inspired names, garments, adornments and styles of thought became pathways back to the Motherland,” Uchenna Ikonne, filmmaker and writer, wrote in a think piece on the Black man consciousness around the time of FESTAC.
At FESTAC, the socially and culturally aware championing the resurgence of African culture – that is artists, writers, musicians, intellectuals, filmmakers, and so on – converged. FESTAC, as well as FESMAN – the first World Black Arts Festival in Dakar in 1966, became the hallmark of events unifying Africans on the continent and in the diaspora. The former recorded fifty-six African nations and countries of Black people and guests numbering up to 17,000. “In terms of scale, scope, ambition and pure flamboyance, FESTAC ’77 had no precedent,” Ikonne added in his essay.
Aware of the glamour and distraction that comes with the festival events (and also the disagreement about ‘Negritude or the African Personality’ in later years of these movements), Leopold Senghor, first president of Senegal and initiator of the first festival in Dakar, outlined the essence and values of black culture on the eve of FESTAC. Across a long text on culture and civilization, he wrote “… But what are these original values that make up black culture? They are, fundamentally, the sense of communion…; the sense of analogical images, which expresses this communion and finally, the sense of rhythm. I speak of a rhythm that is living which is neither simple repetition nor mechanical discourse… but a rhythm characterised by unity in diversity.” In addition to Senghor’s ideals for Négritude, which were to ‘define, defend and illustrate’ black civilisation, he also emphasised the importance of spiritual values over material values.
Enwonwu on his part focused on the importance of art. He stated “The role of art in African society is an important one for all who are concerned with the advancement of African culture, African thought and the African personality. It should also concern the present generation of Africans whether they are interested in art for art’s sake or not. In fact, no emergent African state today can afford to ignore the urgent role of art.” And in his unwavering perspective, he defines what many generations can return to for inspiration. “Art is not static. Like culture, art changes its form with the times. It is setting the clock back to expect that the art-form of Africa today, must resemble that of yesterday, otherwise the former would not reflect the African image. But it now appears that the young African painter and sculptor distorts his work deliberately so as to achieve Africaness, or else, that if he does not do so, his work will be imitative of European art.”
Another distinguished writer in the publication was Lt-General Olusegun Obasanjo, Head of the Federal Military Government from 1976 – 1979. In the foreword, he wrote “Nothing is more appropriate at this time in Black and African History than a re-discovery of those cultural and spiritual ties which bind together all Black and African peoples the world over. It is the full realization of this fact that has motivated the Federal Military Government to take up the responsibility for organizing and staging the Second World Black and African Festivals of Arts and Culture.”
Although fraught with tensions and contradictions, the military government involvement ensured the success of FESTAC, at least, the financing. It remains a ground for questioning the high level of disinterest by current democratic governments in Nigeria. It seems they understood the importance of the arts for their own agenda and for the nation’s prestige in world affairs.
However, four decades later, what are the gains of these festivals and how have they manifested? Why did the steam go off on Pan-Africanism? In a journal presentation titled “Pan-Africanism and the Black Festivals of Arts and Culture: Today’s Realities and Expectations” at the Department of Fine and Applied Arts, Obáfémi Awólówò University, in 2015, Babasehinde Ademuleya (Ph. D) & Michael Fajuyigbe (M. Phil), wrote: “It is however worrisome that forty-eight years after the maiden edition of the festival (FESMAN) and thirty-seven years after the second (FESTAC), the achieved cultural integration is yet to translate into much expected economical, political, educational, philosophical and technological advancements of African nations and that of the Diaspora… Was there no blueprint to consolidate the achieved cultural integration? Or were our leaders only interested in festivities and not real development?
Quotes by Ben Enwonwu, Leopold Senghor, and Olusegun Obasanjo are taken from the publication FESTAC ’77 by Africa Journal Limited and The International Festival Committee of the Second World Black and African Festival of Arts and Culture. (c) 1977 Africa Journal Limited and The International Festival Committee.
Images: © Marilyn Nance from her interview on Africultures.com. Nance was the official photographer of the North American delegation to Nigeria for FESTAC ’77.