Revisiting FESTAC ‘77, the largest pan-African festival in World history

Revisiting FESTAC ‘77, the largest pan-African festival in World history
A new exhibition takes a photographic look at the event which was envisioned as a restoration of power, solidarity and genius after 500 years of subjugation.

In January 1977, they came 17,000 strong to Lagos, Nigeria, to attend FESTAC ’77, the Second World Black and African Festival of Arts and Culture — a global celebration featuring artists, performers, and intellectuals from 55 nations. It was, and remains, the largest Pan-African festival in world history.

Bolstered by oil wealth, the Nigerian government spent $400 million ($2 billion in 2023 dollars) to stage a month-long series of events centring the arts, science, history, politics, and spirituality with a scale and scope that has never been replicated.

Envisioned as a restoration of power, solidarity and genius after 500 years of subjugation by the Global North, FESTAC showcased a dazzling array of groundbreaking figures across the diaspora and the continent including Fela Kuti, Miriam Makeba, Stevie Wonder, Sun Ra, Wole Soyinka, Audre Lorde, Amiri Baraka, and Barkley Hendricks, among many others.

Top to bottom: Horsemen in Pageant at the Grand Durbar in Kaduna, Nigeria (northern Nigeria), 1977, K. Kofi Moyo, courtesy of Monastery Foundation, Chicago, IL Opening of FESTAC with International Delegates, 1977 K. Kofi Moyo, courtesy of Monastery Foundation, Chicago, IL

Now the new exhibition So Be It! Asé! Photographic Echoes of FESTAC ’77 looks back at this once-in-a-lifetime experience through the lens of Roy Lewis, K. Kofi Moyo, and Bob Crawford. As members of the United States delegation to FESTAC, the photographers documented the kaleidoscopic array of performances, art exhibitions, symposiums, pageants, and ceremonial events that affirmed Africa’s place as the centre of the world.

For many, FESTAC marked a homecoming and a family reunion long overdue. “This was my first trip to Africa, a dream pursuit,” says K. Kofi Moyo, now 84.

Born in Chicago in 1939, Moyo took up photography at age 8 under the tutelage of his mother, a public school teacher who encouraged her son to pursue his passions for the arts. Exposed to racism and structural inequities from a young age, he became involve in community activism, using his camera as a tool of liberation.

As independent photojournalist, Moyo’s activities kept him close to the streets on assignment for Ebony magazine and The Chicago Defender, developing relationships that would ultimately bring him to FESTAC. Like Lewis and Crawford, Moyo chronicled the extraordinary encounters and events as they unfolded over the course of 29 days, creating an intimate and immersive portrait of this historic festival.

Untitled (Jeff Donaldson at FESTAC 1977), 1977, © Bob Crawford, courtesy of GRAY Chicago/New York

“At times it was overwhelming,” he says, describing a sense of joy and wonder whose power has not diminished with the passage of time. “The village at night was alive. No one ever really slept.”

Roy Lewis feels the same way. “It was one of the great moments in my life, and affected my work in a very positive way.” Born in Natchez, Mississippi, in 1937, Lewis grew up on a plantation before making his way to Chicago in 1956. He launched his career in ’64 when Jet magazine published his portrait of jazz legend Thelonious Monk.

A decade later, Lewis made his first trip to Africa to photograph the legendary “Rumble in the Jungle” heavyweight championship fight between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman. FESTAC marked his return to the continent, this time exhibiting his photographs as well as shooting the festival.

“There was a great spirit in the air,” Moyo says.

So Be It! Asé! Photographic Echoes of FESTAC ‘77: Roy Lewis, K. Kofi Moyo, Bob Crawford is on view through December 22, 2023, at Gray New York, and will travel to Gray Chicago in early 2024.

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