All African People's Conference leaflet, 1958, from the W. E. B. Du Bois Papers (MS 312) at the Robert S. Cox Special Collections and University Archives Research Center (image courtesy UMass Amherst Libraries)

Editor’s Note: This is part of the 2022/23 Emily Hall Tremaine Journalism Fellowship for Curators, and the first of two posts by the authorthe second of which will be an email-only exhibition sent to all Hyperallergic subscribers.

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The period of the end of the 1950s and beginning of the ’60s was a turning point for African anti-colonial struggles as African nations were forming. In 1956, Tunisia became one of the first countries to gain independence. Tunisia’s first president, Habib Bourguiba, was a fervent supporter of African independences. In 1960, he hosted the second All African People’s Conference in the nation’s capital, Tunis, a historical gathering of the heads of newly independent African states as well as representatives of anticolonial political organizations from the continent. 

The All African People’s Conference was first organized by President Kwame Nkrumah in Accra, Ghana. It took place on April 15, 1958, which was celebrated as “Africa Day.” In 1961 and 1962 the prominent Tunisian artists Hatem El Mekki and Jellal Ben Abdallah, respectively, each designed a stamp on the occasion of Africa Day. A journalist who interviewed El Mekki noted that the artist sought to represent Africa through his stamp, writing, “To him, Africa is black and white, it is solidarity and support, brotherhood and friendship.” El Mekki and Ben Abdallah certainly saw their drawings as ideal representations of African unity, an embrace between a “black” south and center and a “white” north. Though this was a commonly accepted idea at the time, it was not as obvious as it seemed.

Stamp issued on April 15, 1961 by the Tunisian National Postal Services, artwork by Hatem El Mekki (1918–2003) (image via La Poste Tunisienne)

In 1965, during an official visit to Senegal, the Tunisian president confirmed his belief in the idea of a unique African experience, or Africanité, and agreed publicly with Senegal’s president, Léopold Sédar Senghor, on the existence of “an African sensibility, an African way of apprehending things, an African vision of the world.” Yet Bourguiba’s stance toward Blackness remained unclear (and, to this day, is understudied). 

Central African Republic dancers at FESTAC, 1977 (photo by Ridha Najjar and used with permission)

In contrast, Senghor, along with writers Aimé Césaire and Léon-Gontran Damas, had founded Négritude, an emancipatory cultural movement in the 1930s. Positing a collective Black consciousness based on common experience, Senghor defined it as “the set of cultural values of the black world, as expressed in the lives and works of black people.” The founders of the movement, along with Alioune Diop, went on to initiate the project of the first World Festival of Black Arts, through which they sought to reaffirm the existence of a Black culture that transcended time and borders and, to emphasize, in Senghor’s words, “the contribution of Black art to universal civilization.” Senegal hosted the first festival, in 1966. The historical event lasted 20 days, and made Dakar the capital of the Négritude movement. Hundreds of artists, writers, and intellectuals from 37 different countries convened in apparent harmony, but the festival was also a stage for contradictions and paradoxes to be unpacked. 

When it came to North Africa, Senghor, along with the festival’s organizing committee, issued very strict instructions on who could and could not participate. All participants had to be represented by a country and had to be “either of black race or of black descent.” Senghor had in fact agreed to include works of North African artists only if they came from “black communities living among Arab-Berber populations,” making it very clear that so-called “Arab-Berber” people did not qualify as Black. 

Upon receiving the invitation and instructions from the Senegalese state, Tunisia’s cultural minister, Chedli Klibi, initially planned to invite a Stambali or Gougou band to perform. Stambali and Gougou are religious rituals involving music and dance, usually performed by worshippers of Sub-Saharan-African descent in Tunisia. A few months later, the minister changed his plan, informing the organizers that Tunisia would instead sponsor the production of a short movie to be screened during the festival about Black Tunisian populations. 

Nigerian visitor posing in the Tunisian booth of FESTAC crafts exhibition, 1977 (photo by Ridha Najjar and used with permission)

Morocco went so far as contesting the event’s title and proposing that it be renamed the Festival of Black-Berber Arts. The request was denied by the festival’s chief curator, Djibril Dione, who responded that Morocco could only submit works of Berbers if the contributors were also considered Black or if their work had “an obvious relationship to Black arts.”

The concept of Blackness as agreed upon by the festival’s organizers was not as coherent as it seemed from the outside. Although strict eligibility criteria were in place and communicated to participants, they were not necessarily strictly applied. We know, for instance, that Egypt (formerly United Arab Republic), Libya, and Morocco could send large troupes of performers, and presumably those groups included non-Black members. Additionally, we know that the Algerian Berber poet and singer Taos Amrouche performed as part of the main festival program. Furthermore, North African artists were present in the contemporary art exhibition titled Tendencies and Confrontations, to which countries could submit work by artists who the organizers considered to be Black. 

According to its curator, Iba N’Diaye, the exhibition was meant to “reflect the unity and originality of today’s black world.” The show represented around 200 artists from more than 25 countries. N’Diaye was in actuality more of a coordinator than a curator as the artists were chosen by delegations from the participating countries. Although Tunisia did not submit any artists, two Tunisian artists took part, represented by France. In addition to exhibiting Black artists, France also showed works by Tunisians Fela Kefi and Edgard Naccache and Moroccan Ahmed Cherkaoui, all of whom could arguably be defined as non-Black.

In another of the festival’s exhibitions, titled Black Art, Sources, Evolution, Expansion, works by Picasso, Fernand Léger, and Jean-Michel Atlan were shown alongside those by traditional Black artists to demonstrate the influence of Black arts on major European artistic movements. The work by Atlan, a painter born in Constantine, Algeria, to a prominent local Jewish family, was titled “La Kahena,” and referred to the seventh-century Berber Jewish warrior-queen. As a result, the exhibition positioned Atlan’s work as merely inspired by Black African culture, despite his deep roots in the continent. The prominent Algerian painter Mohammed Khadda even cited him as a pioneer of modern Algerian painting.

Performance of Zaïre National Orchestra at FESTAC, 1977 (photo by Ridha Najjar and used with permission)

Both Edgard Naccache and Jean-Michel Atlan were French citizens, born into North African Jewish families. Both had lived in France and both hailed from Africa. Yet in the same festival one (Naccache) was defined as Black and the other (Atlan) as a European modernist artist inspired by Black culture. What differentiated them? The contradictory framing of French North African participants in the festival offers another take on the concept of Blackness in the wake of African independences. 

This conflict came across even more clearly in the mid-1970s. When the second Festival of Black Arts was being organized by Nigeria, “a controversy arose between the [Nigerian] organizers of the festival and Senegal,” as Tunisian journalist Ridha Najjar wrote at the time. Najjar continues: 

“With the support of African-Arab countries, Nigeria wanted to organize a Black and African cultural festival and not yield to the request of Senegal, which wanted to limit this festival to black artists. Senegal even announced its total withdrawal from this festival in early 1976. But this storm calmed down and a compromise was found. The festival would be Black-African and the colloquium’s main topic would be ‘Black civilization and education.’”

The festival that sought to give an overview and answer to the questions “What is Black culture?” and “Who is Black?” ended up also shedding light on the limitations of the concept of Blackness, as advanced by the Négritude movement; “Blackness” could also be a racial construction imposed by another, independent gaze. 

Abdelmajid Ben Abdessalem Jertila and his stacked jars, during Tunisian dance performance at FESTAC, 1977 (photo by Ridha Najjar and used with permission)

Najjar summed much of this up in his description of the 1977 festival and associated colloquium:

“And there was Festac 77 …. A grandiose event enabled by the huge resources invested by Nigeria in its organization. On Saturday, January 22, at the gymnasium of the national stadium, the Tunisian National Troupe of Popular Arts, accompanied by members of the Gougou dance troupe of Zarzis, performed in front of around 300 persons. The Tunisian dancers were acclaimed for a long time, especially at the end of the show, when the young dancer of the Gougou troupe, Abdelmajid Ben Abdessalem Jertila (b. 1953), superimposed five jars on top of his head. Interesting detail, the Angolan troupe included two or three ‘white’ dancers who attracted the attention of the Nigerian public. They are of course white people of Portuguese origin who are Angolan by nationality. 

“All the frescoes and ballets presented sang the greatness of the Black man, his strength, denounced colonialism, racism, and the Church, and celebrated agricultural work or the working man. Much more than artistic creations, they were pamphlets against the Western world and a hymn to Africa and the Third World.

“The colloquium Black Civilization and Education mobilized researchers and participants from the Black-African world from 17 to 31 January 1977. It was during this event that clear differences appeared between the supporters of Négritude (led by Senegal) and the supporters of an Africanness without distinction of skin color (especially Guinea and Nigeria). The general report of the symposium emphasized the differences between those who ‘insisted on the uniqueness of the African continent without distinction between a Black Africa and White Africa’ and those who proclaimed ‘the specificity of a Black Africa, its civilizations, and its extensions in the diaspora.’ If, of course, the concept of Négritude found its champions in the delegates of Senegal, who came in large numbers to the colloquium, they were nonetheless outnumbered by eminent speakers from Guinea (Mr. Sirado Diatto) and especially by the Nigerian writer Wole Soyinka, who famously declared: ‘Does the tiger sing about its tigritude?’”

City of Lagos during FESTAC, in 1977, decorated with colorful banners (photo by Ridha Najjar and used with permission)
Historian Pr. Ki-Zerbo during the FESTAC colloquium, 1977 (photo by Ridha Najjar and used with permission)
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Beya Othmani

Beya Othmani is an independent art curator and researcher based in Tunis. She is a member of the curatorial ensemble of Archive Sites, a platform for publishing and cultural research. She is currently...

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