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.
|Leopold Senghor, centre, at the start of the festival.|
(Photo: from Jean Mazel. Collection PANAFEST archive)
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 Russia 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 back 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.
|Dominique Malaquais (photo: McKenzie)|
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 organize the Dakar festival. So they came up with the idea to focus on film, interviews and publications, with “specific entry points”, Malaquais said.
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.
|An article about the festival, in a U.S. magazine.|
“What happened was that USIA, the United States Information Agency – one of the diplomatic arms of the US 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],” Malaquais told SWAN.
“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?
|A journalist watches the Greaves film.|
Each film has its own ideological perspective as Russia 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.
|A shot from the Soviet-made film.|
“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 see illustrations, too, of the huge colloquium held at Senegal’s parliament house, 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, under the auspices of UNESCO.
|Malaquais and Marie Laure Croiziers de Lacvivier,|
Senghor's niece, with two visitors at the exhibition.
“It’s a real mix,” Malaquais said. “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. – A.M. Copyright SWAN. Follow us on Twitter: @mckenzie_ale