In April 1966, legendary jazz musician Duke Ellington travelled to Dakar, Senegal, with his orchestra to play at the first World Festival of Negro Arts. Organised against the backdrop of African decolonisation and the push for civil rights in the US, the festival was hailed as the inaugural cultural gathering of the black world.
More than 2,500 artists, musicians, performers and writers gathered in Dakar that month. The event spanned literature, theatre, music, dance, film, as well as the visual arts. Duke’s concerts were a highlight and, several years later, he still recalled them with great affection: “The cats in the bleachers really dig it … it gives us a once-in-a-lifetime feeling of having broken through to our brothers.” Ellington’s visit to Africa gave him the sense of coming home.
An exhibition at the Quai Branly Museum in Paris marking the 50th anniversary of the festival, the first state-sponsored showcase of work by black artists. Dakar 66: Chronicle of a Pan-African Festival tells the story of the event using photographs, rarely seen documentary films and newly filmed interviews with participants. It captures the festival’s idealism and practical successes but does not shy away from thornier issues, such as its entanglement in Cold War politics or the criticism it received at subsequent, more radical, festivals in Algiers (1969) and Lagos (1977).
The participation of artists and musicians from the US was of particular importance to the Senegalese president (and poet) Léopold Senghor. In 1930s Paris, Senghor and fellow French-speaking students from Africa and the Caribbean had been inspired by the Harlem Renaissance and the jazz age to launch the Negritude movement, which promoted black pride among France’s colonial subjects. Ellington was therefore among the most eagerly anticipated guests in Dakar, as were Langston Hughes, the elder statesman of African-American literature, and an ageing Josephine Baker, the “black Venus” from Missouri, who had wowed Paris in the 1920s with her sexually charged dance routines. For Senghor, these figures embodied the cultural bond between Africa and people of African descent.
But it did not go unnoticed that participants were largely drawn from an older generation, viewed as politically and aesthetically conservative by younger, more militant figures. The US authorities, conscious that the racism exposed by the civil rights struggle had tarnished America’s global reputation, ensured that no radicals would travel to Dakar to “make trouble”. And the participation of Ellington’s orchestra was in fact funded by the US State Department, which had been using its Jazz Ambassadors programme for over a decade as part of its Cold War diplomacy. They sent black artists around the world to represent the US while, back home, they didn’t enjoy even the most basic civil rights.
Cold War politics
The US also saw the moderate Senghor as a key ally in its struggle for influence with the Soviet Union in West Africa. Without a black diaspora of their own, the Soviets could not play a formal role in the festival, but they did help the beleaguered hosts, desperate for hotel accommodation, by lending them a cruise ship. A New York Times reporter wryly reported: "As the guests sip their vodka on the main deck, they are also treated to an exhibit extolling Russian-Negro brotherhood. Several display boards highlight the fact that the Russians never engaged in the slave trade while guess-who did."
The Soviets also sent their distinguished, charismatic poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko, who enjoyed rock star status in the mid-1960s. Without any formal role to play, Yevtushenko promptly teamed up with fellow poet Langston Hughes and they spent afternoons driving around town in a limousine, getting drunk on Georgian champagne. So much for Cold War politics.
For Senghor, “the real heart of the festival” was a vast exhibition of “classical” African artworks, entitled Negro Art, at the newly built Musée Dynamique, a monumental Classical structure, perched on a promontory overlooking the sea. Negro Art assembled some of the finest examples of “traditional” African art, almost 600 pieces, borrowed from over 50 museums and private collectors from around the world. These were exhibited alongside a selection of works by Picasso, Léger and Modigliani, borrowed from the Museum of Modern Art in Paris, in a fascinating contrast between traditional sources and the modern masterpieces inspired by them. Who could imagine Western museums lending such priceless items to African partners today?
Senghor’s idealism about culture may have been largely misplaced — today, the Musée Dynamique houses Senegal’s Supreme Court. But the festival marked one of the high-points of black modernism in the 20th century. In his opening speech, Senghor claimed that the event was “an undertaking much more revolutionary than the exploration of the cosmos”. While the Soviets and the Americans raced to conquer space, the “black world” was gathered together to find its soul.
This article originally appeared in The Conversation under a Creative Commons license.