From 1–24 April 1966, following three years of intensive preparations, Dakar hosted the Premier Festival mondial des arts nègres (First World Festival of Negro Arts). This huge event was organised by the Senegalese state and the African Society of Culture, an international network structured around the influential Paris-based journal Présence Africaine, and backed by UNESCO. The objective was ambitious: the festival wished to provide a forum for the expression of a new society grappling with the promises of independence in Africa. A diverse range of art disciplines was represented, in dance, theatre, cinema, visual art, handicrafts, literature, poetry and music. And the city of Dakar itself was transformed: vast building sites were started, whole neighbourhoods renovated, and hotel complexes built as well as a museum.
Of all this cultural ferment, the exhibition of contemporary art called ‘Tendances et confrontations’ (‘Tendencies and Confrontations’) remains the least documented section of the festival. A catalogue was published but not distributed. The national daily Dakar-Matin, which covered the preparations for the festival widely, made little effort to publicise ‘Tendances et confrontations’. In general, very few photos of it circulated. In the recent history of art in Africa, however, the exhibition is noteworthy as a first attempt at a panoramic representation of contemporary African art. The work of more than 200 artists – some 25 nationalities – was featured. 01 To assess its influence on the representation of contemporary African art in the post-independence era – as this article proposes to do – is not to try to rehabilitate the exhibition but rather to attempt an understanding and description of its form and structure; and such an assessment must take into consideration what was at stake in the festival as a frame for production and protest.
Dakar, April 1966
According to official reports, the Senegalese president Léopold Sédar Senghor was the personification of the festival. Through this event, his goal was to remove the concept of Négritude from its usual literary-philosophical context in order to demonstrate its practical applications. He would put this Pan-African philosophical model to the test, for it constituted, in his eyes, both the expression of African cultural unity and the best way to perform it. In Senghor’s inaugural speech, he outlined the import of this project: ‘In short, if we have taken on the huge responsibility of organising this festival, then it is for the defence and illustration of Négritude. For here and there in different parts of the world, people continue to deny the existence of Negro art and Négritude, I mean, the Negro values of civilisation.’ 02
The festival attracted thousands of spectators from all over the world. The dates of the event corresponded to both the anniversary of Senegal’s independence and the religious festivals of Tabaski and Easter, which undoubtedly contributed to the effervescence of the event. Representatives of some thirty independent African countries gathered in Dakar, and six countries with an important African diaspora were also represented: Brazil, Haiti, France, Trinidad and Tobago, the United Kingdom and the United States. Over the course of three and a half weeks, more than 2500 artists, musicians, writers and politicians gathered in Dakar, amongst them Aimé Césaire, Haïlé Sélassié, André Malraux, Michel Leiris, Langston Hughes, Duke Ellington, Josephine Baker and Wole Soyinka. The list of those who took part can be read as a Who’s Who of some of the greatest black cultural figures of the beginning and middle of the twentieth century, as well as some of the leading Africanists of the time. However, it should be noted that the choice of participants largely favoured a generation of artists and intellectuals deemed politically and aesthetically conservative by many amongst the younger generation, who would express their resistance more openly three years later, at the first Pan-African cultural festival in Algiers.03
The festival opened with the symposium ‘Function and significance of Negro art in the life of the people and for the people’, held at the National Assembly, which set out the intellectual stakes for the entire event. This formal, ceremonial opening was in keeping with the great Pan-African conferences of the twentieth century. 04The symposium generated eight days of discussion, in which an international array of writers, playwrights, film-makers, musicians, visual artists, dancers, archaeologists, curators, historians and ethnologists participated. Working groups were set up to reach concrete resolutions concerning how to ‘create conditions favourable to Negro arts in today’s world’.05
But the ‘real heart of the festival’, to use Senghor’s words once again, was the exhibition ‘L’Art nègre: Sources, evolution, expansion’, held at the Musée dynamique, a museum built for the occasion. 06 Gathered under the same roof for the first time in Africa were a selection of ‘masterpieces’ of African art drawn not only from the great number scattered in museums and private collections across Europe and the United States, but also those kept within chiefdoms and royal treasuries in Africa. ‘Tendances et confrontations’ must have paled into insignificance in the shadow of this larger exhibition.
John Povey, who was to launch the journal African Arts the following year, claimed that in comparison with the exhibition at the Musée dynamique
the display of contemporary arts [in ‘Tendances et confrontations’] … seemed rather inadequate, though that is as unfair a comparison as to wander from a Greenwich Village gallery into the Metropolitan Museum [of Art in New York] and to comment
on the difference there. Nevertheless the arts of many national exhibits phased off too readily into handicrafts; oils jostled with pictures made of seashells and pairs of decorated leather shoes.07
Although such a response may display certain prejudices of its own (no doubt encouraged by the curatorial framework), Povey’s view was shared elsewhere. The title of an article in The Washington Post provided a rather abrupt summary of the exhibition: ‘African artists disappoint viewer at World Festival of Negro Arts’. 08
In his opening speech, however, Senghor tried to convince his audience that the exhibition of contemporary art occupied a central position within the overall festival plan: as ‘L’Art nègre’ represented the art of the past, ‘Tendances et confrontations’ was designed to represent the art of ‘a new vision of the world … of the new Negro’. He added that ‘the Negro-African artists, the Senegalese artists, help us to live better, today, more and better’.09 Under the presidency of Senghor, art was given an active role in the development of society. Senghor represented this synthesis of the political and the artistic through his status as a ‘poet-president’. African arts, especially modern arts, were to save the Black subject and show the world the true value of African culture. New cultural structures emerged that would favour the visual arts, as well as an important cultural policy informed, shaped by and founded in Négritude.
Tendencies and confrontations
Despite the importance attached to it, contemporary art was not mentioned in the initial plans for the festival discussed in 1963. At that stage, two exhibitions were planned. The first, ‘Sources de l’art africain’ (‘Sources of African art’), was envisaged as a display of ‘masterpieces’ borrowed from European and American private collections and museums. The second, ‘Tendances et confrontations’, was imagined as a very different exhibition to the one that would eventually be realised under that title: organisers planned a display whose purpose would have been to evoke the ‘place of art in the life of the community and to underline the expression of African art, along with art from Brazil and the Antilles, as well as the influences of African art on contemporary painting, sculpture and music’. These two axes would eventually be combined within ‘L’Art nègre’.
The organisation of the actual ‘Tendances et confrontations’ was initially entrusted to Senegalese artist Papa Ibra Tall, director of the École des Arts in Dakar. Indeed, he appeared the perfect choice to act as President of the Commission for Contemporary Art: his work celebrated Pan-African themes and, for a lot of people, he incarnated the visual interpretation of Senghor’s writings on Négritude. Tall’s convictions were shaped during his years spent in Paris, where he mixed with adherents of Négritude. But, from 1965, it was Iba N’Diaye who would lead the project to completion. Though the reason behind this handover remains a mystery, one hypothesis is that Tall’s departure from the Dakar art school to found and direct a tapestry school, Manufacture Nationale de Tapisseries in Thies (which opened in December 1966), had caused him to neglect preparations for the exhibition.
Studies of the Senegalese art scene in the sixties regularly oppose these two artists, both trained in Paris. 10 Tall’s objective, particularly in his teaching, was to provide a framework for the development of a new art form, modern Senegalese art. This modern art was predicated on the innate creativity of the artist rather than on academic training. In contrast, N’Diaye firmly defended technical training and the acquisition of a broad aesthetic culture as prerequisites for the expression of an artist’s singularity.
But this divergence in views had little impact on the organisation of the exhibition. The role of the President of the Commission was not that of an omnipotent curator but rather of a supervisor, or coordinator. He did not intervene in the choice of artists or works presented – these decisions fell to the delegations wishing to take part.11It is worth remembering that the transport of the artworks, or indeed the artists (although few made the journey), was the responsibility of each country. If we are to believe the archived correspondence, it was unclear how many art pieces and artists each delegation could claim. The regulations imposed a maximum surface area that a delegation could occupy (32 square metres). Additionally, the space allocated was not very functional: the great hall of Dakar’s court of law, with an open-air atrium in the centre, had been fitted with partition walls made of movable panels that permitted the exhibition to enjoy its own defined space without inhibiting either the free movement of personnel or the maintenance of court activity. Following the logic of the organisers, the hanging of artworks was allocated by country and not by artist or according to thematic or formal choices.
The decision of the festival’s organisers to work with national delegations prioritised international cultural relations over the promotion of individual artworks. Most of the official documents relating to the festival attest to this fact, including the programme of concerts and performances, which mainly refers (sometimes exclusively) to the nation due to perform on a given date. This reveals the paradoxical dynamic of the festival as a vector for the expression of Pan-African unity while also offering a forum for countries in the process of creating a national culture and the invention of traditions.
An aggregate of conceptions about contemporary art
Though the title ‘Tendances et confrontations’ was not originally intended for a contemporary art exhibition, Iba N’Diaye believed that it fit perfectly:
The prudent title given to this presentation of paintings and sculptures, ‘art contemporain, tendances et confrontations’, corrected the overly ambitious intention declared by the organisers of the festival: to make it reflect ‘the unity and the originality of today’s black world’. In reality, Dakar’s exhibition was characterised by a great heterogeneity, whose source was regretfully not to be found in the originality of the various artistic currents of contemporary Africa!12
The ‘heterogeneity’ to which N’Diaye refers (with a touch of irony) echoes the confusion detailed by Povey in his description of an unsatisfactory exhibition that prevented the public from grasping the outlines of contemporary art in Africa and that sat uneasily within the festival’s overall project. For some critics, the reason for the disparity between the works – or even their poor quality – was a selection policy that favoured the work of ‘friends’. Sticking to the term ‘salon’, which had been used initially for ‘Tendances et confrontations’ instead of ‘exhibition’, might perhaps have helped to prevent these deceptive impressions regarding its lack of coherence and its resonance with the festival’s overall project.
It is easy to believe that the disparity of the works presented and the themes addressed might have confused the majority of visitors, who had little familiarity with these new forms of artistic production: from demonstrations of lyrical abstraction to the academic prowess of artists who had attended European art schools; or from expressions of a national identity to post-traditional productions. The new genres were nonetheless, or however, based on practices already anchored in local communities. It was the divergence between these practices that characterised the largely infrastructural asymmetry between artistic scenes.
This ‘heterogeneity’ could also be conceived as a manifestation of the different understandings of contemporary art that held sway amongst the various delegations and their artists. For example, Gabon was represented by sculptors in wood who had trained in workshops; this left little room for dialogue with the ten painters from Senegal, including Walid Diallo, Ibou Diouf, Mor Faye, Papa Ibra Tall and Iba N’Diaye. These artists’ paintings, in turn, had little -affinity with the conventional figuration of an artist such as Léon Fylla, who represented Congo-Brazzaville (today, the Republic of the Congo). 13 In fact, one might have expected Congo-Brazzaville to have been represented by the famous artists of the Poto-Poto workshop, whose founder, Pierre Lods, was at the time a professor at Dakar’s art school. But perhaps these artists’ works were perceived as still being excessively rooted in the colonial period.
However, if one pays closer attention to some of the individual selections, it is possible to notice connections between ‘Tendances et confrontations’ and the more homogeneous selection proposed that same year in a publication directed by Evelyn Brown for the American foundation Harmon. Brown’s text was an early attempt at establishing an appraisal of contemporary creation in Africa, as can be seen from its lengthy title: Africa’s contemporary art and artists: a review of creative activities in painting, sculpture, ceramics, and crafts of more than 300 artists working in the modern industrialized society of some of the countries of sub-Saharan Africa. Its editorial line sought to classify a contemporary African artistic practice through a catalogue of artists, mostly from English-speaking countries, who specifically saw themselves as practitioners of modern art. From a similar perspective, the Dakar exhibition offered, apart from the Senegalese delegation, a fairly typical representation of contemporary African art of the period.
Pioneering figures were present at the festival. The Ivorian sculptor Christian Lattier won the grand prize for visual arts. The Nigerian Ben Enwonwu, who was close to many of the figures associated with Présence Africaine, does not appear to have exhibited his work, but at the symposium he defended his vision of an art marked by nationalist vigour. 14 His rival Felix Idubor was one of the sixteen Nigerian artists whose work was exhibited. The Nigerian delegation also included the ‘Zaria Rebels’: Demas Nwoko, Uche Okeke and Bruce Onobrakpeya. They had been the leading members of the former Zaria Art Society at the Nigerian College of Arts, Science and Technology, and they defended a new approach to art called ‘Natural Synthesis’. Their project aimed to reconcile European techniques with the forms and styles of specific Nigerian cultures. Also featured in the exhibition were works by the Ethiopian artists Skunder Boghossian and Gebre Kristos. The latter had been awarded the Haïlé Sélassié Prize in 1965 for being ‘one of the main innovators in non-figurative art’ in Ethiopia. 15
It is also interesting to consider the participation of the United Kingdom, which was represented by only four artists, according to the catalogue: Uzo Egonu, Ronald Moody, Aubrey Williams and Frank Bowling. In later accounts of Black British art, the Second Festival of Negro Arts (FESTAC) in Lagos in 1977 is cited as the key event that ‘contributed to the extent to which Black artists in Britain were, by the 1970s, starting to cluster around designations of ethnicity as means of advancing their own practice’. 16 Yet Egonu, Moody, Williams and Bowling were amongst the prominent artists whose work was exhibited at both FESTAC and the 1966 festival. (Bowling received the grand prize for painting at the latter, but much to his regret his paintings came back damaged.)
The turbulent involvement of the United States
In some cases, the necessity for the artist to represent his or her nation and its cultural identity generated an unexpected fluidity, whereby place of residence superseded place of origin. Gerard Sekoto did not represent South Africa but France, where he had lived since 1947. 17
(He was close to the group associated with Présence Africaine and had made a poster for the Congrès des écrivains et artistes noirs (Congress of Black Writers and Artists) in Rome in 1959.) The presence of the Martiniquan painters Mathieu Jean Gensin and Louis Laouchez as part of the Ivory Coast delegation might come as an even bigger surprise, but it is evidence of the decisive role that artists from the Antilles were coming to play there. In other cases, the notion of representativeness had led to tensions between members: the power struggle initiated by the artists within the United States delegation (overseen by Virginia Innes-Brown, a white philanthropist) was one of the most blatant manifestations of this.
Often perceived as an autonomous exhibition, ‘Ten Negro Artists from the United States’ was in fact part of ‘Tendances et confrontations’. Originally, the US visual arts committee had wanted to exhibit around eighty artworks by some forty living artists, so as to provide a significant representation of African-American art. That project proved to be too ambitious: for one, the space of the law court was too small; second, the funds allocated were not sufficient to support such an undertaking. Just a few weeks before the opening, the selection was reduced to sixteen artists. At that point, budgetary restrictions led to a deeper conflict between the artists and the committee.
The dispute concerned the unfair treatment of visual artists, who were not paid for their participation in the festival while performers such as the gospel singer Marion Williams and the Alvin Ailey dance troupe were remunerated. Romare Bearden declared to a New York Timesjournalist that: ‘The full weight of sacrifice was placed solely on the visual artists’. 18 Bearden and other protesting artists were linked to the Spiral collective, 19 which had been fighting for greater inclusion of Black artists on the visual arts scene and thus situated its participation in the festival within the history of the civil rights and Black Power movements. Bearden had submitted works to the committee, amongst them his collages Conjur Woman (1964) and Watching the Good Trains (1964), but in the end became the spokesman for a group of sculptors and painters who withdrew from the
exhibition in protest. 20
One consequence of these defections was to highlight the aesthetic disparities amongst the ten remaining artists. Several of them – Barbara Chase, Sam Gilliam, Richard Hunt and William Majors – insisted upon exhibiting totally abstract pieces. Others, like Jacob Lawrence and Charles White, were working in figuration and the depiction of social realities as experienced by African Americans. 21 White’s work, for instance, proposed a model of Blackness completely different from that imagined by the partisans of Négritude. This was also the case with Majors, who separated identity claims from his artistic practice to the point where he refused the grand prize for illustration and printmaking, which Senghor was due to present to him during a visit to New York a few weeks after the close of the festival. In an interview about the Spiral group published in ARTnews in 1966, Majors confirmed: ‘I don’t care about going to Africa … I just work.’ In that same piece, however, Bearden defended the position that some aesthetic ideas produced by African writers like Senghor were worth discussion. 22 After his withdrawal, Bearden’s sole contribution to the festival was his poem written specifically for the occasion, which was published on the first page of the catalogue Ten Negro Artists.
Majors was far from the only figure to adopt such a stance. The Nigerian poet Christopher Okigbo refused to go to Dakar, and rejected the prize for poetry because he found ‘the whole idea of a Negro arts festival based on colour quite absurd’. 23 This sentiment seems to have been shared by Iba N’Diaye, despite his official role in the festival, and the special prize he was awarded for his oeuvre (on the strong recommendation of Michel Leiris) even though he was only 38 years old at the time. N’Diaye ended up leaving his country for France one year later, in profound disagreement with the direction of the arts under the patronage of Senghor’s state, which was guided by the philosophy of Négritude. Nonetheless, the majority of Senegalese artists viewed ‘Tendances et confrontations’ as marking the birth of the ‘École de Dakar’, a collective term for post-independence artists for whom the emblematic figure was Papa Ibra Tall. 24
For Senghor, the festival was conceived to act as a living illustration of Négritude. However, as was demonstrated by ‘Tendances et confrontations’, it did not result in a monolithic affirmation of Négritude as a unifying Black identity. In this sense, the exhibition did not fulfil its mission, and was perhaps overly inclusive in the way it was organised, but it undoubtedly constituted the most profound expression of the festival’s role as a form of laboratory in which one could question, defy, debate and explore – rather than simply asserting or passively accepting a global Black identity/community and the artistic and cultural manifestations that might represent it. Instead, the festival became a forum in which the various actors could negotiate their own understanding of Black culture and its art in complex and often contradictory ways.