PARIS - Its goal was to bring together leading intellectuals and artists from Africa and the diaspora, and 50 years ago, the first Festival Mondial des Arts Nègres (World Festival of Negro Arts, or FESMAN) did exactly that.
Played out against the backdrop of the Cold War, with the United States and the former Soviet Union jockeying for influence in Africa, the three-week-long festival took place in Dakar, Senegal, in April 1966, initiated by then President Léopold Sédar Senghor.
It included some world-renowned headliners: writers Wole Soyinka, Aimé Césaire and Langston Hughes; musician Duke Ellington; dancers from the Alvin Ailey troupe; iconic singer and activist Josephine Baker; calypso star Mighty Sparrow – and many others, representing some 45 countries.
The festival showed the world the wealth of African art and culture, and people got a clear taste of the rivalry between the superpowers of the era, as the Soviet Union sent a steamship to Dakar with about 750 passengers who participated in a festival that was attended by a large American delegation, underwritten by the U.S. State Department.
That background story, and the history and impact of the festival are now being highlighted in an exhibition that runs until May 15, 2016, at the Quai Branly Museum in Paris. The show, titled "Dakar 66: Chronicles of a Pan-African Festival", presents film archives, posters, magazine articles and photographs, and it captures the ambience of the event and the times.
“We didn’t want to do simply a restaging of the festival,” says Dominique Malaquais, who co-curated the show with other historians Cédric Vincent and Sarah Frioux-Salgas. “How could you stage something that had all this extraordinary dance, music, poetry and colloquia? We didn’t want to do something static, we wanted to present something with movement and flux and people.”
The three experts had worked respectively on projects dealing with four of the major pan-African festivals to date, and on the role of Présence Africaine, the famed journal that began in 1947 in Paris and whose publishers helped to organise the Dakar festival. So they came up with the idea to focus on film, interviews and publications, with what Malaquais said were “specific entry points”.
The exhibition begins with the official representations of the festival – such as the striking poster created by Senegalese artist Ibou Diouf, which later caused controversy because it was seen as an emblem of the Negritude movement – and it moves to videos of the speeches given by Senghor, Césaire and also André Malraux, the celebrated French writer and France’s first Minister of Cultural Affairs.
Visitors can watch these speeches in their entirety on screens installed at the exhibition, and they can view two full-length films about the festival, one in black and white made by African-American pioneering director William Greaves, and the other in colour produced by Soviet film-maker Leonid Makhnach and titled Rhythms of Africa.
“What happened was that USIA, the United States Information Agency – one of the diplomatic arms of the U.S. government – in a very specific Cold-War bid to present abroad a positive image of the United States that would counter Soviet propaganda, commissioned this [Greaves' film],” said Malaquais.
“These films were never shown in the United States, they were only shown abroad, and this film was made to do something very particular from the USIA’s point of view, not Greaves’ point of view,” she continued. “The idea was to show a picture of the United States as open to the voices of the African American minority, which of course in 1966 – no comment, right?
“What happens, however, is that Greaves is asked to make a 10-minute film, and he just runs with it, and he makes a feature-length documentary, and it’s all centred on the African-American delegation that comes to the festival. Later on, he’s going to come back and say: you know, this was my one and only chance because I’d never received funding before to make a film from a black point of view – I’m quoting him there. And so he took and completely turned on its head what USIA felt it was doing,” Malaquais explained.
Each film has its own ideological perspective because the Soviet Union was keen to highlight the United States’ history of slavery and its continued oppression of its black population, according to the curators. Carefully sub-titled in French, the Soviet film is being shown for the first time in France, and viewers can watch both presentations and draw their own conclusions.
The exhibition also examines the significant world events taking place around the time of the festival: notably the coup d’état in Ghana against Kwame Nkrumah, one of the founders of pan-African politics; student demonstrations in Dakar; the birth of the Black Panther movement in the United States; and Cuba's hosting of the 1966 Tri-continental Conference of African, Asian and Latin American Peoples, a meeting of mainly leftist leaders and thinkers.
“You can see the ways in which the festival was implicated in larger global and Cold War issues,” said Malaquais. “People tend to think of these great pan-African festivals as something localised, and they weren’t. They were worldwide events with international repercussions. And that’s what we wanted to express with this exhibition.”
Museum-goers can also see illustrations of the huge colloquium held under the auspices of UNESCO at Senegal’s Parliament on the “Function and Significance of Black Arts in the Lives of the People and for the People”. This attracted hundreds of observers and international experts from the worlds of literature, art, film, music and other fields.
While some would prefer to consider the festival as a purely artistic initiative, the exhibition equally looks at the commercial aspects, which included the promotion of Senegal as a tourist destination, and the distinct merchandising of products such as postcards, souvenirs and other objects. Members of the public donated some of the 50-year-old items, while the curators bought others on e-Bay or obtained them from friends and supporters.
“It’s a real mix,” said Malaquais. “We have an example of a medal that was given out at the festival, and there are key-chains that were publicity items, for instance. And there are advertising brochures for Air France and for the Russian steamship.”
One of the highlights of the exhibition is the slideshow of blown-up photographs, made available to the curators by a private collector named Jean Mazel and by a photographer who travelled to the festival as a young man. These pictures bring home the fierce motivation of the leading characters of the festival, many of whom today remain larger than life.
Note: This article first appeared on February 25, 2016 in SWAN – Southern World Arts News – an online cultural magazine devoted to the arts of the global South. and is being reproduced by arrangement with the writer. Follow her on Twitter @mckenzie_ale [International Press Syndicate – 26 February 2016]
Photo: Leopold Senghor, centre, at the start of the festival. Credit: Jean Mazel, PANAFEST Archive Collection