Forty years ago, in January 1977, when Marilyn Nance was only twenty-three years old, she left the United States for the first time, and went to Lagos, Nigeria. Relying on the windfalls of the rising petro-state, the city was hosting the second World Black and African Festival of Arts and Culture (FESTAC). It was a grander version of the first Festival Mondial des Arts Nègres (FESMAN) held in Dakar in 1966, and gathered 15,000 participants coming from more than 70 countries, including the North-African delegations absent from the Senegalese event. The aims of the festival were « to revive and promote Black and African values and civilization, to illustrate the contributions that Black and African peoples have made to the universal currents of thoughts and the arts, to foster better international and interracial understanding, and to give Black artists, writers and performers all over the world a feeling of belonging to a common root despite the diversity of their individual cultural identities ».
Nance was the official photographer of the North American contingent, which encompassed 482 delegates. She documented the festival, thus creating an archive of more than 1500 images. After this life-changing experience, the young artist returned home to Brooklyn and went on to
produce exceptional photographs of unique moments in the cultural history of the United States and the African Diaspora, thus possessing an archive of images of late 20th century African American life especially African American spiritual culture. Her work can be found in the collections of the Smithsonian American Art Museum, the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, and the Library of Congress, but her FESTAC archive remains hidden, in wait of exhibition and recognition, much like the heritage of the festival itself.
What was your relationship to Africa before you went to Nigeria and how did you feel when you got there?
Before I went to Nigeria, I was familiar with concepts of Black nationalism; I went to Lagos saying, « I’m an African! », as I knew I was an African in America. My relationship to Africa was always one of reverence, of longing, of belonging; I thought that I would be seen as an African who had returned to the Continent. But when I arrived, I was like « Oh no, I’m an American! I talk like an American, I walk like an American, I don’t even speak English, I speak American! » And that’s the first time I ever felt like an American. I knew that I was a hybrid of African, European, and Native American yet I considered myself an African- I still do-but I never felt my American-ness or my « mixed-ness » until I went to Africa.
At Festac, I was together with Africans from everywhere – which was really wonderful because not only did I see Nigeria but I saw all of Africa, and African people from all over the world! Nigerians asked me, « Is your mother white? Is your father white? », to which I answered, « What are you talking about??? » What they were looking at was the color of my skin. I’m brown-skinned. In the United States race is binary; you are either Black’ or White’-there’s no middle ground. I am Black. In Nigeria, my « mixture » was evident. I had never seen myself as mixed. I had lived in the United States of America all of my life but I never « felt » American. Malcolm X said, « Just because a cat has kittens in the oven, that doesn’t make them biscuits. » So, if you put an African in the United States, she’s an African in America. I came face to face with my American self while I was in Africa. At the same time, I felt at one with all of Africa.
How did you get involved with FESTAC?
During the Seventies, the time of the Black Arts Movement, people were very committed to community and collective work; we helped each other. The word was out that there was a big festival that was going to happen in Nigeria and you could submit your work. I can’t remember the exact details of the whole application process but I do remember taking my work to a black advertising agency that was doing some of the intake work, considering artists who were applying to be part of the festival, and my work was selected to be exhibited. The work that was chosen was a photograph of my grandmother. I felt like I was sending my grandmother to Africa! I sent the photograph in to Howard University, Washington DC, the headquarters of the North American Zone of FESTAC 77.
Originally the festival was supposed to take place in the early seventies, but it was delayed. Years went by and there was still no festival, until the end of 1976 when I received an enthusiastic letter saying that the festival was indeed going to happen, but with reductions in the number of participants in the U.S. delegation from 2,500 to 1,500. I was deflated when I read one short sentence in a paragraph at the end of the letter: « Unfortunately your work was not selected ».
At the time, I was a student in the Institute of New Cinema Artists, a television production training program in New York City. I overheard two of my instructors talking: Festac was looking for technicians! As the festival organizers had not returned my photograph, I wrote letters to them: In light of the fact that my grandmother’s photo had not been returned, and the fact that they were looking for technicians, I proposed that I join the North American Zone’s cadre as a « photo-technician ».
My proposal was accepted. I became the photographer for the North American Zone after having been uninvited as an exhibiting artist. My good friend Ajuba Douglas (who had applied with me, and was also accepted as an exhibiting artist) was also uninvited, but because we were such a collective, we both organized ourselves to reapply as technicians: she was the « film technician » working with the US contingent film crew, and I was the « photo technician » for the United States contingent.
There was no payment, no camera given, no film supplied. The United States Department of State supplied an airplane that would transport the contingent to Nigeria and back. Once in Lagos, the Nigerian government paid for our food, shelter, ground transportation, medical care, etc.
I was scheduled to stay in Nigeria for two weeks but, how could I come all the way to Africa, and stay for such a short time? I elected to stay for the entire length of the festival.
What was your general experience of the festival?
I could sit across the table and eat lunch with someone from Zambia, and then talk to someone from Nigeria, and dance with someone from Senegal, and listen to a music performance with someone from South Africa-that was such a great experience! To be able to look in other people’s eyes and talk and communicate in the best way possible, the best way I could-that is what I see when I look at my photographs. I didn’t own a telephoto lens; I am right up in people’s faces…and we’re interacting. They were present for me as I was present for them. We were so excited to meet each other. That’s what I see in my photographs: this mutual being there for each other, an intimacy-a strong desire to know more about each other.
What about the aftermath of the festival when you all came back? Was there some kind of legacy of the festival with the artists who went there?
There were some receptions and gatherings post-FESTAC but no permanent organization was created to hold our Festac experience.
Jeff Donaldson, the head of The North American Zone of FESTAC 77, requested duplicate slides of photographs. The images would be used to provide evidence to the American public in a series of press conferences and receptions in New York, Atlanta, San Francisco, Los Angeles and Chicago during April, 1977, and to present the USA/FESTAC delegation.
I’m told that the Smithsonian Archive of American Art has Donaldson’s papers (he passed away in 2004). Maybe there’s some record there, but as far as an organization or a club or affiliation or a fraternity or sorority, there’s nothing that I know of. The number of people who remember Festac is dwindling. Many Festac participants are elderly or have passed away. Artist Carole Byard recently died on Wednesday January 11, 2017.
How can we tell people about FESTAC 77? What vehicle do we have to push our memory, our experience, our warm feelings into the future?
What’s the state of your archive today and where would you like to see your work exhibited?
In addition to negatives, vintage prints and digital prints, I have letters, artifacts and memorabilia relating to the festival. The negatives are all organized, securely filed, and stored in plastic sleeves. The plastic negative sleeves have been scanned, digital contact sheets made, and rough prints made of every single image. In 2016, I was able to digitize and print every single image made during my month of photographing FESTAC 77.
I have been in touch with Dominique Malaquais, who co-heads a project on Pan African festivals called Panafest devoted to creating a digital archive about the Dakar (1966), Algiers (1969), Kinshasa (1974) and Lagos (1977) festivals, as well as to organizing conferences and exhibitions such as the « Dakar 66 – Chroniques d’un festival africain » exhibition held at the Quai Branly Museum last year. The Quai Branly is a possible exhibition venue for my FESTAC archive. I do wonder if the United States will be receptive to an international show of African culture? And Nigeria, of course!
Technology helps us to work together across borders. It was naval technology that brought my people from the continent of Africa to the continent of North America, jet technology that took me back; information technology helps me to organize the archive, and it’s internet technology that keeps us in contact.
Your special relationship to archival work is illustrated in your involvement with the Schomburg Research Center for Black Culture in 1997, when you selected and digitized over 500 images from the collections of the New York Public Library to illustrate texts written by African American women writers in the 19th century. Back then, you said that you were « searching the past for a better understanding of the future ». What do you think your FESTAC archive could do for us today and in the future?
That’s a good question- hard to answer. When photographing FESTAC, I felt the excitement of meeting people from all over the continent of Africa, from all over the world. If in some way I could ignite someone else to feel that interest and that excitement and that joy, that would be something! In my photographs you’ll see a lot of joy – the joy of meeting someone, of being somewhere. I want people to experience that joy. Can you experience joy from looking at a photograph? What work could this collection of images do for people, moving forward? And, how can I profit from the investment that I’ve made over 40 years?
People don’t get to connect with others. They’re afraid of going out in the world, leaving their preconceptions, their rooms, their homes, leaving their neighborhood, leaving their city, leaving their country, leaving their continent. They believe that they have to stay home and watch TV. It’s ok to GO. If, instead of rattling our chains and grumbling, we get up and move, we might see something different. This is a world of abundance and joy. We’ve got to shake loose our chains; we’ve got to be free!
Forty years after FESTAC, with the importance of the Black Lives Matter movement and major popular artists like Beyoncé reclaiming the heritage of the Black Panthers, do you notice a genuine revival of the African connection in the African-American community?
In popular culture, Blackness has been branded. The collectivity that existed in the late 1970s and the 1980s has been branded as « Black Panther » or « Activist ». Blackness is commercialized today. Do people still believe in collectivity??? I don’t know. I’m « old school »; I’ve got a frame of reference from the Civil Rights Movement, a frame of reference from the Black Arts Movement, and every day I practice Ujima, one of the fundamental principles of Kwanzaa which means « collective work and responsibility ».
« The Black Struggle » has been idealized and romanticized in popular culture in way that I suspect people really don’t embrace. I don’t see a movement feeding the people and educating and organizing like in the old days. One slogan from the 1970s and 1980s was « Educate! Agitate! Organize! ». Who is doing that now??? Or is it: « How can I make money by looking black and acting black, and wearing these buttons and tshirts as opposed to, « How can I build an institution »?
There are people who are REALLY working- but their work is often hidden as the commodified activism is celebrated.
In Brazil, if you wear your hair in an Afro, it’s called « Black Power ». It’s just hair, but that’s what it’s called: « Black Power ». Here in the US; culture can look like « Black Power », but it’s just hair, or it’s just music. Does that music, does that film, does that sculpture do any work? Does it change people? Does it move people to action? I believe that my photographs perform work. They are more than well composed pictures. They are visual medicine. I archive to insure that I can move this medicine into the future. There was a time when Africans from all over the world converged. I want it to be KNOWN that this joy HAPPENED.
Joy Matters !
///Article N° : 13958