In early 1977, 23 year-old Brooklyn-born photographer Marilyn Nance traveled to Lagos, Nigeria to take part in an historic gathering of Black creative people returning to Africa from around the globe. Nance was among the 400-member Black American delegation participating in FESTAC ’77, formally called, The Second World Black and African Festival of Arts and Culture, a once- in-a-lifetime assemblage of artists, actors, dancers, intellectuals, musicians, writers and politicians from across the global Black African Diaspora.

The successor to an earlier festival, the First World Festival of Black Arts, held in Senegal 11 years earlier, FESTAC ’77 was described as “the Olympics, plus a Biennial, plus Woodstock. But Africa style.” More than 17,000 Black people from around the world participated in FESTAC ’77 including such global pop stars as Stevie Wonder, Miriam Makeba, and Nigeria’s own Fela Kuti, jazz musicians Randy Weston, Sun Ra, and Milford Graves, Black intellectuals such as Wole Soyinka, and U.N. Ambassador Andrew Young. It was a Pan African festival of art and culture unprecedented in scale, yet in the years since, FESTAC ‘77 has faded into obscurity, mostly forgotten but for a scant number of books and articles written about it.

Nance’s new book Last Day in Lagos, an incomparable collection of photographs documenting the landmark event, will rectify that situation. The book is out now from Fourthwall Books and The Center for Art, Research and Alliances (CARA). Edited by Oluremi C. Onabanjo with photographs culled from Nance’s archive of over 1,400 images, the book is a black and white photographic essay capturing the infinite variety of Black and African people, as well as the artistry, literature, and cultural performances that took place in Lagos from early January to February 1977.

PW talked with Nance, whose work has been exhibited at the Art Institute of Chicago, the Brooklyn Museum of Art, and the Schomburg Research Center among other institutions, about the genesis of the book, her role in documenting the festival and the festival’s place in world art history.

Publishers Weekly: Tell us how a photograph of your grandmother set the stage for you to become part of the 400-plus U.S. delegation to FESTAC '77?

Marilyn Nance: I submitted a portfolio of photographs, and that photograph of my grandmother was chosen to be exhibited at FESTAC. I heard that there were 2,500 people chosen. In the end, the organizers did not have the means to transport that number of people from the USA to Nigeria. And so the list had to be cut. And of course, I was disappointed.

And then, I overheard two of my instructors talking about the fact that they were looking for technicians. I was studying television production, I had a lot of audio visual skills, in addition to photographic skills. So I wrote a letter saying, listen, I know you're looking for technical people to work this festival, you need people to document it. I said please consider me, because I was selected originally as an exhibiting photographer, but I'm willing to serve in a technical capacity. I just want to get there. And it worked.

You were part of an American contingent that included political figures like Andrew Young and Louis Farrakhan; musicians like Stevie Wonder, Sun Ra, and Randy Weston and writers like Haki Madhubuti and Audre Lorde. Tell us about your fellow artists from AfriCOBRA [African Commune of Bad Relevant Artists, a Black artist collective co-founded by Jeff Donaldson, a key Black American organizer of FESTAC] and other organizations.

I knew Charles Abramson, Ellsworth Ausby and I knew the late Valerie Maynard and Tyrone Mitchell. And when I got to Nigeria, I met David Stephens, Viola Burley Leak, Barkley Hendricks, who was from, I think, Connecticut, and Ta–coumba Aiken.

Who was Sharon “ Abuja” Douglas, and why did you dedicate the book to her?

I was a graphic design student, she was an industrial design student. We were always co-conspirators. When we applied to FESTAC to exhibit, both of us got letters at the same time saying, ‘I'm sorry, you're not going’. She reapplied as a technician and was on the film crew, and I was photographing. We did projects together when I was a finalist for the W. Eugene Smith Grant. She helped me put my materials together, and we enabled each other. She passed away in 1996.

In the book you describe yourself as an “historical agent.” And how does that description shape how you photographed?

We are all historical agents. Nothing we do is lacking input. But we have to see ourselves that way. I like saying I was there, here I am. I have the skills, and I'm qualified. I come from a line of storytellers. I've called myself a storyteller. And that's one way in which history was passed on. And so I'm a mid-20th century storyteller, picking up a camera, and then at the end of the 20th century, using internet technology in the 21st century.

In the book you write about how your photographs “reflect my romantic notions of Pan-African unity.” What was it like seeing Black people from across the African Diaspora?

I didn't kiss the ground when I got there. Not everything in Nigeria was peaches and cream. But I saw familiar faces in all of the different delegations: The Somali delegation, the Nigerian delegation; It was just fascinating to me.

You described FESTAC '77, a gathering of 17,000 people of African descent, as “essentially a temporary Pan-African nation.” How did the festival make you feel as an American?

That was the first time I actually felt like an American, because I'm thinking, I am an African. I'm an African-American. But everything about me, said American [including]: the way I dressed. And I wouldn't have known that just being in the U.S.

As an older photographer today, what images from the festival move you in a different way today than they did when you were younger?

When I was younger. I felt like, this is a good photograph [because] it’s not out of focus. But now, as a 68 year-old photographer, I think focus is overrated. In the beginning of the book, there’s a blurred image of a man on the bike. South Africa was not represented, but the Liberation Front was there. And I believe on page 95 [there’s a picture of] the Liberation Front walking into the stadium out of focus. What’s in focus, are the Nigerian girls who are standing at the sidelines to greet the contingents on page 94. In 1977 after I came back to the U.S. from Nigeria, and I was thinking of making postcards. I was gonna do a series, but I actually made one postcard.

There wasn’t a lot of media coverage of FESTAC ‘77 in the West, and there was no follow-up festival. Do you see your book filling that void?

So many people don't know about FESTAC ‘77. So we dropped so many names [of artists who were also there] in this book. There’s just no excuse for people to not pick up any given names and go do a deep dive [for information about them] and try to find out more. So that's kind of like my mission.