The period of decolonisation in the 1960s and ‘70s in Africa allowed art to flourish and nurtured an infectious spirit of Pan-Africanism and public dialogue of ideas.
Newly independent nations used art as a way to articulate their freedom and promote the value of African culture.
Panafest is an online platform that captures stories about four of the largest gatherings in the history of the African continent: the Festival Mondial des Arts Nègres (Fesman ’66), which in those times translated to First World Festival of Negro Arts, held in Dakar in 1966; The First Pan-African Cultural Festival (Panaf ’69) held in Algiers in 1969; Zaire ’74 held in Kinshasa in 1974 and the Second World Black and African Festival of Arts and Culture (Festac ’77) held in Lagos in 1977.
These four festivals are still unrivalled in their celebration of African art, politics and culture
Speaking from her base in Paris, Panafest co-director Dominique Malaquais calls the platform a web cartography and a web documentary. It is an interactive archival site too and an altogether impressive body of work.
Digging into memory through 54 interviews, Panafest brings together scholars, activists, musicians, photographers, filmmakers, actors, writers and dancers who took part in the four festivals. The goal is “to memorialise and bring to life for new and for future generations the power, the complexity and the richness of these four pan-African festivals”, says Malaquais.
The project was born 10 years ago, when synchronicity brought a collective of researchers together. Malaquais paired up with Cédric Vincent and researchers in other parts of the world. Steadily, they collected information and travelled extensively to meet people who could share their experience of the festivals.
Chimurenga, a Pan-African literary and cultural hub based in Cape Town, is the host platform for Panafest. While processing this research, Malaquais suggested working together with them.
Since inception in 2002, Chimurenga continues to play a central role as a publication that connects South Africa to the rest of the African continent and the global Black diaspora.
Overlaps & Connections
The Panafest project research ran parallel to the Festac ’77 book Chimurenga published in 2019.
Research uncovered by Panafest reveals overlappings and parallels exist between the historic festivals when looked at collectively and with fresh eyes. Each host country and its leaders were driven by political desires, for example. Dakar ’66 was a platform for the philosophy of Négritude, while Panaf ’69 celebrated pan-Africanism and liberation. Festac ’77 drew from both festivals to imagine Black solidarity.
In a panel discussion held at the University of Chicago, Malaquais says: “The political heft of the four festivals tends to be understated in mainstream historiography. They tend to be presented as ‘just arts and culture’ events… In fact, they were powerful actors in the emergence of phenomena that significantly impacted the second half of the 20th century.”
Malaquais adds: “As meeting grounds between creators, intellectuals and political personnel on the one hand, and extremely large and varied audiences on the other hand, they provided an important way for ideas that had been previously confined to the elite to make their way into the public sphere.”
Fesman Takes Off
Launched as a celebration of art in Africa, Fesman ’66 took place in Dakar, Senegal in 1966. Festival contributions included poetry, sculpture, theatre, art, film, architecture, dance and design. More than 2 000 people contributed.
It was a month-long arts festival instigated by President Léopold Senghor and sponsored by the state. The festival was an extension of Senghor’s interest in the concept of Négritude which, with Aimé Césaire, he helped develop. It is an idea rooted in the self-affirmation and celebration of Blackness and African identity on its own terms.
Delegates included important African cultural figures like the South African poet Keorapetse Kgositsile and Nigerian writer Wole Soyinka. Some came from abroad too, like Langston Hughes, William Greaves and Duke Ellington. A massive colloquium examining African art was held, bringing together intellectuals from around the world. The festival was widely praised and criticised by many. For example, by the historian Cheikh Anta Diop whose relationship with Senghor’s politics and worldview was to say the very least fraught. Kgositsile too, it must be said, was quite critical of Fesman.
More Inclusion at Panaf
In many ways, Fesman set the stage for Panaf, held three years later in Algiers. Though commonly seen as a rebuke to its predecessor, it was far more complex than that.
In Dakar, the invitation to participate was extended only to countries recognised by the international community, whereas in Algiers liberation movements from around the world were included. Fesman ’66’s focus on Négritude meant that much of Northwest Africa was excluded from participating. Panaf ’69, on the other hand, presented a much more inclusive festival, opening up to various nations from the region.
Algiers was dubbed “a revolutionary Mecca” when Panaf was held there in July 1969, seven years after Algeria’s independence. The festival was mandated by the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) in 1967. It ran for 10 days with a line-up of artists and radical activists from all over the world.
A festival designed to be an anti-colonialist and anti-capitalist gathering, it was significant for its focus on nation-building, pan-Africanism and fighting for freedom. Taking a leaf from Fesman, an exhibition celebrating classical and modern African art was held. There was an important colloquium too, this time reflecting on African unity. Several participants at the colloquium, notably philosopher Stanislas Adotevi, heavily criticised the concept of Négritude.
In an interview, Vincent notes: “For 10 days or so, the Panaf was the centre of a world in the process of creating itself, of discovering a sense of cultural and political pride, of belonging, and the ability to exert an influence on the world.”
The festival also brought together liberation movements from all over the world. The Black Panthers, who had in parallel set up a base in Algeria under Eldridge Cleaver’s leadership, were a big part of proceedings, for example. Other liberation movements struggling against colonial powers who were present at Panaf included Frelimo from Mozambique, the Palestine Liberation Organisation from Palestine and the ANC from South Africa.
Puzzle of Zaire
Largely excluded from the dominant narrative of these grand festivals is Zaire ’74.
A brainchild of then-president Mobutu Sese Seko, it would also double as a promotional event for the iconic heavyweight championship boxing match between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman, famously billed as The Rumble in the Jungle.
Mobutu wanted this festival to have a similar feel to its predecessors. Instead, it became a three-day music festival taking place from 22 to 24 September 1974 in Kinshasa, attended by an estimated 80,000 people.
Malaquais was doing extensive research on Zaire ’74 at the time of getting involved in the Panafest project. “No one had ever talked about Zaire ’74 as it relates to the other festivals,” she says.
“What’s interesting about Zaire ’74 is that, fundamentally, it’s an act of plagiarism. Mobutu looked at what had happened in Dakar and Algiers. And he had his eye on what was going on – what was about to happen – in Lagos, because he saw Zaire as being in competition with Nigeria, in terms of representing what was the country of reference in Africa at the time. So he ended up borrowing widely from Fesman and Panaf and from the preparations for Festac. He took and remixed – borrowing or pilfering vocabulary, symbols, tropes from the two previous festivals; inviting artists who had been invited to Fesman, Panaf and Festac – and behaving, in the process, like a brilliant, if deadly DJ.”
The concert was organised by Hugh Masekela and producer Stewart Levine curated the line-up, as a way to connect with artists based in the United States. Among those who played to packed audiences were James Brown, Bill Withers, Miriam Makeba, the Fania All Stars and Tabu Ley Rochereau.
Mobutu initially sought the OAU’s permission to create what he called the second Panaf. Permission was not granted. Art and spectacle in the service of politics drove his goal of drawing the attention of the international community. He also meant to explore the festival as a manifestation of the principles of “Authenticité” under which he ruled. It was one of many ways with which he hoped to legitimise his rule.
This article is taken from New Frame. The full story can be found at https://www.newframe.com/long-read-digging-into-pan-african-cultural-memory/