Ace documentary photographer and filmmaker, Tam Fiofiori discusses his career highlights and FESTAC ’77 with Yinka Olatunbosun

It was agreed that the interview would last just 30mins-in between the tea break and the panelists’ session at AFRIFF. That was impossible. Tam Fiofori had with him iconic images, loaded with historical details that couldn’t be munched as snacks. Hence, we settled for a full-course meal in form of a long conversation, undulating across viewpoints, counter-arguments and of course, story-telling, at a corridor inside Eko Hotel and Suites, Victoria Island, Lagos.

For many in the art community, he certainly needs no introduction. Besides having a career in photography that had spanned five decades, Fiofori is known as a key associate of a pioneering synthesiser player in the US, Sun Ra. Fiofori is also known as the first new music/electronic music editor for Down Beat and other publications in the US. In fact, records have it that his work in film was screened at FESTAC ’77.

For FESTAC memories to be unearthed 40 years later gives Fiofori the nudge to collect his pictures of the ground-breaking cultural event that began on January 15, 1977 with an opening ceremony at the National Stadium, Surulere.
“I have concentrated on documenting very important events; once in a lifetime events such as FESTAC ’77,” he disclosed. “In 1979, I covered the presidential elections with people such as Awolowo, Azikiwe and Shagari. I have covered big sporting events such as the All African Games in 1978 in Algiers. The Cup of Nations in 1978 held in Ghana and Nigeria in 1980.”

Fiofori worked as a freelance photographer, not employed by any media house to cover event. Yet, he managed to gain access to important events as a well-established photographer. He would write to the media planning committee for these events and get his accreditation.
“I believed I should build up a photo archive which I have finally done. I have with me iconic images. And for those who want to use the images for books, I was always sought after. It has been an investment. I have produced two books. I covered the coronation of the Oba of Benin in 1979. And out of it I produced a book titled A Benin Coronation: Oba Erediauwa.

“Right now, I want to produce a book from the FESTAC Photographs. I also have a book called 1979 containing photographs that I took in 1979. The photographs were on the coronation of the Oba of Benin, the 1979 elections which featured Azikiwe, Awolowo, Shagari and the house-warming in Ijebu-Ode.’’

From a folder, Fiofori uncovered more FESTAC photos that were taken on January 15, 1977 showing all the 56 participating countries from Africa and Africans in the diaspora. It was thrilling to be allowed to hold them, for a few seconds before Fiofori gently pulled them from a firm grip.

Another picture showed the Cubans marching behind their national flag. Then, he brought out another showing the Brazilians in their national costumes. Then came one with a sea of heads gathered at the National Stadium.
Though a prestigious gathering, it was free entry to all. At that period, televisions in Nigeria and perhaps in other countries showed only Black and White. His pictures, captured in coloured, were beautiful statement on one of Nigeria’s most decorated events since independence.

It had been argued that FESTAC ’77 was a wasteful expenditure. Fela Anikulapo-Kuti was very vocal about this view and even reportedly pulled out of the event for this reason. Fiofori had a different view. He had lived in Harlem. Hence, with every sense of black-consciousness, he would rightly argue that FESTAC ’77 was necessary to foster global unity across racial differences. South Africa was still under in apartheid system. US still had silent racism institutionalised. Promoting black culture was really a need and the best vehicle for that was not Mercedes, Toyota, Nissan but the arts.

While still on the subject of Fela’s absence from FESTAC ’77, Fiofori thought that Fela’s pull out from the event did not diminish the greatness of that moment in history.
“The greatest black musicians came for the event,” he recalled. “Stevie Wonder, Mariam Makeba and many more. We needed to show the whole world the strength and breadth of black culture. I think Nigeria did the world a favour. We cannot say money was wasted. The only thing we can be sad about is that the documents, the films that were made are no longer around. CBAAC has some of them. CBAAC didn’t show films about FESTAC until last month. How can they say they want to celebrate FESTAC at 40 in one week? They were even being ridiculous by saying that they would have a wrestling match. Was there wrestling in FESTAC 77?’’

The Ruby crown was to be given to former president, Olusegun Obasanjo by the Ooni of Ife in a ceremony to mark FESTAC at 40 in Lagos. Fiofori thought it would be a mistake to do any such tribute to the former military president.
“Obasanjo must be thanked for making FESTAC happened,” he said. “That is why I am very proud that Obasanjo Presidential library has featured memorabilia from FESTAC. But to say he will be crowned by Ooni of Ife for his contribution to culture is ridiculous.

“Why the Ooni of Ife? We need to be careful. FESTAC was not about a particular king. We should not debase FESTAC 40 years after. You can honour him by telling Nigerians that this is the man that made FESTAC possible. Not by crowing him, what kind of crown is that?’’ Only those who traded during that period could say something about FESTAC’s economic impact on host country, Nigeria. But Fiofori thought that if Nigeria had preserved all the works from the event, it could be a great source of revenue as they will be useful as archival materials. The National Theatre, Orile Iganmu, which was built for the event is being considered for sale, making it convenient to argue that FESTAC was a wasteful expenditure as the facility has not been put into productive use in recent years.

“The fact that it is not properly used does not mean it was not needed,” Fiofori countered. “The National Stadium in Surulere was built to host the All Africa Games in 1973. We do not have the right manpower to maximise this edifice. Like I said. We have the wrong civil servants who don’t have a clue. Wembley Stadium that was used for Olympics, is it not being used till now? We don’t have people with ideas on how to keep those places going.’’
For him, FESTAC is a success story for the large turn-out of people from different countries to project their culture, with no previous model. Yes, it was the second edition of the Festival of Arts and Culture, still, it is unbeatable.

“We had Anthony Enahoro then with the Gowon government which began planning FESTAC. But it was postponed a couple of times. But Obasanjo saw to it that it took place. I don’t think any country can replicate FESTAC. Rather than be condemning FESTAC, we should look at the gains of the event. I was many interesting things on FESTAC when I went to the website. I saw Victor Uwaifo’s recordings and the Congolese musician. Why are they not being publicised? Why are we not making money from the archives?’’
Perhaps, the answer is that we have short memory in the arts; we’re quick to forget the veterans. But Fiofori has a better answer.

“It is because we always have the wrong people running culture. As long as we give posts based on political membership, it will be like that. Using quota system is bad in the long run. I am a Nigerian and a stakeholder. Lai Mohammed has done well for the arts. so far so good. Earlier this year, we had a workshop talking about collaborations with Korean and South African film makers. He working on MOUs and he is encouraging the arts.
Nigerian movie industry boomed during the time of Baba Sala, Ade Love because we had this cultural exchange programme in North Korea. We used to go to their festivals. We have lost all that opportunities. We are retrogressing in respect to being at the forefront of culture. We don’t have a sense of appreciating the old. Today, they call themselves on- air personality but they don’t really know much about music.’’
Next on Fiofori’s plate is a compilation of the FESTAC ’77 pictures which had been nicely printed on metal in miniatures at Bloom Art, which also boasts of a huge metal sheet edition of the work titled, “The Spirit of FESTAC”.

“My good friend whom I admire a lot General Obasanjo will write the foreword. I must emphasise that Obasanjo deserves a lot of credit for the FESTAC. The crowing diminishes what he has achieved. I presented my FESTAC archives during the CORA Art Stampede in March. I showed more than 60 coloured pictures at the vent. The FESTAC logo was the Benin mask Queen Idia, and you know that the British took the mask with them. They refused to return it. Some people believe that the British wanted to keep the power of our artefacts in their museum. We must realise the power of our art. They said if they had given us, would we have looked after the artefact well?’’
It sounded like a valid argument.