NOSTALGIA: Remembering FESTAC ’77

NOSTALGIA: Remembering FESTAC '77

Festac ’77, also known as the Second World Black and African Festival of Arts and Culture (the first was in Dakar, 1966), was a major international festival held in LagosNigeria, from 15 January 1977 to 12 February 1977.

The month-long event celebrated African culture and showcased to the world African music, fine art, literature, drama, dance and religion. About 16,000 participants, representing 56 African nations and countries of the African Diaspora, performed at the event. 

Artists who performed at the festival included Stevie Wonder from United StatesGilberto Gil from BrazilBembeya Jazz National from GuineaMighty Sparrow from Trinidad and Tobago, South African Miriam Makeba, among others.

FESTAC’77 was, as at the time it was held, the largest pan-African gathering to ever take place.

The hosting of the festival led to the establishment of the Nigerian National Council of Arts and Culture, Festac Village and the National Theatre, Iganmu, Lagos. Most of the events were held in four main venues: the National Theatre, National Stadium, Surulere, Lagos City Hall and Tafawa Balewa Square.

The festival was held with several aims driving it, the foremost aim was the celebration of African culture and our origins.

Other reasons include: ensuring the revival, resurgence, propagation and promotion of Black and African culture and black and African cultural values and civilization, presentation of black and African culture in its highest and widest conception, bringing the diverse contributions of black and African peoples in the universal currents of thought and arts to the fore and the promotion of black and African artists, performers and writers around the world.

INSPIRATION BEHIND FESTAC ’77

The inspiration for convening FESTAC ’77, and the one before it in Dakar, in 1966, can be traced to the development of ideas on Négritude and Pan-Africanism.

In the 1940s, Aimé Césaire and Leopold Sedar Sénghor, inspired by DuBois‘ Pan-Africanism and Alain Locke‘s concept of the New Negro, started a journal and publishing house in Paris called Présence Africaine; both men were also members of the Société africaine de culture

Présence Africaine and the Society of African Culture facilitated two congresses, one in 1956 and the other in 1959. The forums were convened with the aim of promoting black culture and civilization. The first congress was the Conference of Black Writers in Paris and the second was a black writers forum in Rome.

Among the attendees of the forumswere writers of African and Afro-descendant heritage such as Alioune DiopCheikh Anta Diop, Léopold Senghor, and Jacques Rabemananjaraamong others.

Members of both forums began discussing ideas about the resurgence of African culture and the convocation of a festival of arts. It is this discourse that led to the First World Festival of Black Arts, held in Dakar, Senegal, from April 1st to the 24th, 1966.

The event was succesful as a result of the innovative leadership of  Leopold Senghor and subsidies from outside, particularly France, and UNESCO.

At the end of the first festival, Nigeria was invited to hold the second festival in 1970 so as to promote a continuation of black unity through cultural festivals. The host nation would be responsible for providing the necessary infrastructure and facilities for a successful staging of the festival. However, the Nigerian Civil War and changes in government led to the postponing of the festival to 1977.

Preparation for the Festac took off in Lagos on 3 October 1972, when the International Festival Committee met for the first time and decided that the festival would be held in November 1974.

The name of the festival was changed from “World Black Festival of Arts and Culture” to “Second World Black and African Festival of Arts and Culture” so as to accommodate the realities of African unity. 

The organizers of Festac ’77 divided countries into 16 geographical zones, each zones having a committee made up of representatives of peoples of African descent; the chairman of each zone would become a member of the International Festival Committee. The committee acted as the administrative arm of the Festival.

The desire to improve on the Dakar festival led to Nigeria’s intention to create an extravagant show fuelled by new-found oil money. A new regime replaced the Gowon administration and the date for the festival was thus changed to 1977.

To generate publicity for the festival, the international committee advised the zones to encourage preliminary festivals. Some mini-festivals did take place, such as Carifesta hosted by Guyana, the Commonwealth Festival in LondonGhana‘s national exhibition of arts and crafts and Nigeria’s Nafest.

The festival committee also chose as the emblem for Festac ’77 a replica by Erhabor Emokpae of the 15th-century Benin ivory mask (the mask itself was last worn by Ovonramwen, a Benin king dethroned in 1897 by the Consul General of the Niger Coast ProtectorateRalph Moor).

The emblem for Festac ’77

FESTAC ’77: The Festival, and performances

The opening ceremony of the festival took place on 15 January 1977 inside the National StadiumSurulere, Lagos. One of the highlights of the ceremony was a parade of participants representing 48 countries marching past visiting dignitaries, diplomats and the Nigerian Head of State, Olusegun Obasanjo.

Some participants in the parade wore colorful ceremonial robes, and Nigerian dancers carried flaming urns on their heads. To symbolize the freedom and unity of Black peoples 1,000 pigeons were released, and a shango priest also set the festival bowl aflame.

The festival events usually began around 9 a.m. and would last all the way up till midnight.

Performing and visual art shows such as film, drama, music and dance were mostly staged during late afternoons and evenings at the National Theatre, (some drama and music shows were also staged at Tafawa Balewa Square, with modern drama and music shows usually staged in the afternoons and traditional drama and music shows staged in the evenings).

A total of about 50 plays, 150 music and dance shows, 80 films, 40 art exhibitions and 200 poetry and dance sessions were staged. On the eve of the inaugural ceremonies the late Sory Kandia Kouyaté, a master Mande Griot, treated the heads of state and government to a stellar vocal and cora performance.

A cross section of some of the representatives of guest countries, on parade at the National Stadium, Surulere.

The setting of the festival was reminiscent of Medieval Africa’s imperial and royal courts. Other musicians who performed were OsibisaMiriam MakebaBembeya JazzLes Amazones, as well as many other performers of African heritage. 

Apart from numerous concerts, a music meeting was held on 29 January 1977 under the leadership of composer Akin Euba. Others present included instrumentalists, singers, public school teachers and graduate students of music.

For more than two hours, the participants discussed on issues of mutual concern and explored ways of improving musical activities among Africans, both on the continent and in the Diaspora.

Several art exhibitions took place at the National Theatre, at the Nigerian National Museum and around Tafawa Balewa Square. At the Square, each country represented at the festival was given a booth to exhibit their paintings, musical instruments, woven cloths, books and art objects.

Some other notable exhibitions that took place were Africa and the Origin of Man, which was held at the National Theatre, and Ekpo Eyo‘s 2000 Years of Nigerian Art, which included Nok terracottas, Benin court art, Igbo UkwuIfe and Tsoede bronzes and art objects.

A contemporary Nigerian exhibit featuring works from Bruce OnobrakpeyaBen EnwonwuYusuf GrilloUche Okeke and Kolade Oshinowo was also part of the event.

A display of African architectural technology also took place at the National Theatre, the display included paintings, drawings, and models showing different architectural themes such as banco masonry structures, tensile structure and the Berber Courtyard of Matmata.

Festac ’77 remains one of the most defining events in the history of the celebration of African arts and culture, and will go down as one of the biggest showcases of the same!

By Oluwamayowa Akinyemi

Oluwamayowa Akinyemi

Oluwamayowa Akinyemi is a digital and web content developer with experience in web content development and management as well as research and writing. He is an avid reader of random subject matters and a sucker for movies and video games. He is also passionate about youth empowerment and is a global affairs analyst and enthusiast.

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