Chimurenga: A Look Back at an Important Art Festival in 1977

library1.jpeg
Photo by Andrea Lo
Chimurenga Library Project

The Second World Festival of Black Arts and Culture or FESTAC '77, a pan-African cultural festival that took place in 1977 in Lagos, Nigeria, was huge, says Dominic Willsdon, the Leanne and George Roberts Curator of Education and Public Programs at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.

"In size it was like the Olympics, and the newly rich Nigerian government spent billions on this huge arts festival," he said. "There were 40,000 artists there, and it went on for a month with writers and visual artists and musicians. Stevie Wonder was there and Sun Ra."

Considering the size and important of the event, its obscurity is baffling, Willsdon says.

"It doesn't figure strongly in the history of world culture," he said. "Mostly memories, anecdotes and gossip about it are all that exists."

library2.jpeg
Photo by Andrea Lo
Chimurenga Library Project

With the exhibition Chimurenga Library at the San Francisco Public Library, Willsdon and others aim to change that. The installation and research project by the Cape Town artist collective Chimurenga is presented as part of the Public Intimacy exhibition at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, a part of SFMOMA On the Go. The Chimurenga Library exhibition has tape pathways that take visitors on guided tours through six floors of the library allowing them to explore FESTAC '77, and the connections the festival had to the San Francisco arts community both then and now.

Willston calls the San Francisco Main Library an important civic venue, and thinks the exhibition belongs there. The layout gives people multiple points of entry, he says.

"It's part of the inherent beauty of a traditional library," he said. "You come in looking for one thing, and you find another. It's serendipity."

The history of the festival is fascinating, says Rosie Merlin, the program outreach librarian, who says she enjoys the feeling of discovery in the exhibition and the way of using their space.

"You don't know what you're going to find," she said. "They're taping quotes to the floor, so you look down, and there are flags hanging, which makes you look up."

Willston, who hadn't heard of FESTAC before Chimurenga came to Yerba Buena, says it shows how arts can play a role in politics.

"FESTAC was an important moment in the anti-apartheid struggle," he said. "The ANC went to FESTAC and witnessed how arts and culture could mobilize people. Remember how music in the 80s was key in mobilizing people against apartheid - a lot of that came out of FESTAC."

The Chimurenga Library installation will be at the San Francisco Public Library, 100 Larkin Street, through June 29. Admission is free.

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