Explore the legendary Festac '77 in Nigeria with Marilyn Nance's beautiful new photobook
“If you think about it, Festac was the Olympics, plus a Biennial, plus Woodstock. But Africa style,” says Marilyn in the opening of Last Day in Lagos.
- Joey Levenson
- 10 October 2022
Back in the early months of 1977, Nigeria hosted the Second World Black and African Festival of Arts and Culture, otherwise known as Festac ‘77. At the time of taking place, Festac ‘77 was the largest pan-African congregation in history, a vivid and joyous gathering of Black intellectual freedom away from colonial oppressors. One photographer who was there to capture it all was New York-based photographer Marilyn Nance, otherwise known as Soulsista. Marilyn’s passion for the event lead her to document hundreds of images across the festival, and now she’s releasing her previously unseen archive of Festac ‘77 in a beautiful new photobook titled Last Day in Lagos, published by Cara.
In Last Day in Lagos, there lies a particularly revealing and thoughtful conversation between Marilyn and the photobook’s editor, Oluremi C. Onabanjo. “I often say that Festac was a triumph of the Black Arts Movement, because in the Black Arts Movement there was always a reference to Africa,” Marilyn explains in the opening words. “There are real traumas to being Black in the United States, so in some way, maybe we envisioned this return as a symbolic repair of that trauma.” It was, essentially, a site of “mutual fascination” for everyone in attendance at Festac. “Through the years, I discovered that this was not only a significant moment in history, but in art history, and I've wanted to share this,” she adds. “The artist must make sure that her work is preserved and make sure it’s in the right kind of place so that it can last.”
Marilyn managed to immerse herself in an impressive number of attendees, allowing us to see the full scope of just how many important figures in the Black community came to Lagos to attend the seismic festival. Ellsworth Ausby, Charles Abramson, Ademola Olugebefola, Tyrone Mitchell and Napoleon Jones-Henderson are just a few Marilyn recalls. “While these are names that most people probably don't know, they were important artists and cultural leaders of the time,” she explains. It was easy for Marilyn to photograph so many names as many left their ego at the door and mingled amongst the crowd. “I didn’t even know Audre Lorde was there until I was reading part of her biography written by Alexis De Veaux, and then realised I had taken two pictures where she appears,” Marilyn recalls. “And I do remember one night when Stevie Wonder visited Festac Village. He just showed up and hung out among us all.”
With so many mesmerising photos documented in the photobook, it’s a wonder how Marilyn ever managed to focus on how and where she would envision an image. “Even when I was at Festac in the present moment, I was aware that I was part of a significant moment in history,” she says. “It's hard to describe, and people have positioned it as science fiction, but it really did happen. It’s influenced everything I've done, from that point on.” As a self-proclaimed “pivotal moment” in her career, it’s a joy to see Marilyn’s work on Festac ‘77 come to life in Last Day in Lagos. It goes beyond simply being a photographic archive, and cements itself as an important cultural document for years to come.
Marilyn Nance: Nigeria FESTAC ’77 (Copyright © Marilyn Nance / Artists Rights Society, 2022)
About the Author
Joey is a freelance design, arts and culture writer based in London. He was part of the It’s Nice That team as editorial assistant in 2021, after graduating from King’s College, London. Previously, Joey worked as a writer for numerous fashion and art publications, such as HERO Magazine, Dazed, and Candy Transversal.