Reproducing Festac ‘77: a Secret Among a Family of Millions

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In this interview, Ntone Edjabe discusses with journalist Kwanele Sosibo about Chimurenga’s latest editorial project on one of the largest cultural and political events of Pan-African history: the second World Black and African Festival of Arts and Culture, aka Festac’ 77. 

Article published in The Funambulist 32 (November-December 2020) Pan-Africanism. Click here to access the rest of the issue.

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Festac ‘77 by Chimurenga (2020). / Courtesy of Chimurenga.

KWANELE SOSIBO: Can you talk about the timing of this project? Festac took place at the beginning of 1977, after a difficult planning period. What is its continued relevance to the diaspora, in particular now? 

NTONE EDJABE: In the first decade of the 2000s we experienced a wave of gruesome attacks across the continent on what I’d call “the Familiar Other,” we saw this in Côte d’Ivoire, Senegal, Nigeria, Sudan, Kenya, across the Great Lakes and, of course, during the Afrophobic violence in South Africa of May 2008. It is a depressingly long list and the reasons are specific to each context but it seems what is continuously and violently contested is, who belongs where, the perennial question of the nation-state in Africa since the independence period. And, by extension, the question of the circulation of Black people in our world. These questions have been at the center of our work since the first issue of Chimurenga. But I think the most immediate trigger for this project was the failure of South Africa’s World Cup in 2010 — we knew Bafana Bafana [South Africa’s national team] were not going to win it and that it wouldn’t deliver all the jobs-jobs-jobs promised. The developmental logic was unsustainable. The justification for the megalomaniac spending for an event of that scale had to be cultural — to alter, fundamentally, the way Africans see themselves and how the world sees us. Instead we produced that waka-waka nonsense. But it wasn’t enough to point to the failure of the imagination: we began to research global cultural events that the continent had hosted in the 20th century, that were not restricted by the instrumental logic that guided South Africa’s World Cup. 

Like Pan Africanism, it is a story that begins in the diaspora and moves to the continent with the wave of independence of the 1960s — first in Nkrumah’s Ghana in 1958 with the All African Peoples Conference. These gatherings take a cultural slant with the First World Festival of Negro Arts (Fesman) in 1966 in Dakar, and eight years later at the Pan-African Cultural Festival (Panaf) in Algiers. Festac ’77 in Lagos marked the closing of this festival decade. And perhaps the end of Pan Africanism as a state project — so we wanted to look into that. 

But the importance of Festac ’77 goes beyond chronology. Each of these festivals is remembered as a singular moment in the history of the country in which it took place. Always the first of its kind and ideologically dissonant — whereas Dakar ’66 manifested as a platform for Negritude’s ideals of Black culture, Panaf ’69, mandated by the Organisation of African Unity (OAU), looked to culture as a tool of liberation and development. However, individually and as a cluster, they functioned as laboratories for the development of new, worldwide politics and cultures. Their shared aim was to look beyond the binaries established by the cold and hot wars (East-West, North-South), and give form to universalisms that had emerged since the Haitian revolution. In other words, to institutionalize the Black World. 

I think the specificity of Festac ’77 is in its attempt to reconcile what Tẹjumọla Ọlaniyan called the political and cultural paradigms in Pan Africanist thought and practice. This is also the tension I see between Africans on the continent and those from its diaspora, in which “African” has come to mean the former and “Black” the latter. These divisions were of course amplified by the invention of fields such as African Studies and Black Studies in the realm of knowledge production. Anyway, following Ọlaniyan’s logic, Dakar ‘66 would have been “cultural” (Black), and Algiers ’69 “political” (African) — Festac ’77, according to this logic, would be both Black and African, hence the renaming of the festival. 

To circumvent the limits of nativism and Afro-radicalism, Festac ’77 imagined Black solidarity as inclusive. So, people and communities from the Black diaspora as well as postcolonial African states would be represented. The tension between these modes of affiliation, Black/African (and plenty others), is what the festival is all about — it simultaneously presents and celebrates the art of statelessness and state-art, while putting all forms of political representation under pressure. 

For example, members of the AfriCOBRA arts collective are part of the United States delegation — except the U.S. isn’t invited, only Black Americans. They’re not there as members of AfriCOBRA either, because artists are invited as individual members of a recognised political community. They end up representing a country that exists only in the Black radical imagination: Black America. But it gets better. The only state symbol at their disposal is a flag: Marcus Garvey’s flag of Pan Africanism, which is itself a challenge to the idea of the nation-state. On the other hand, the South African born Miriam Makeba was a citizen of nine countries (excluding South Africa at that time) and represented them all at Festac ‘77. The poet Mário Pinto de Andrade, one of the founders of Angola’s MPLA, appeared at the festival instead as Guinea-Bissau’s minister of culture. That’s the beauty and depth of the mess that Festac ’77 makes visible.