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 Image of the Month

January 2018

Picasso and Présence africaine: The Society of African Culture, UNESCO, and International Anti-Racism
Sarah Dunstan, ARC Postdoctoral Fellow, International History Laureate, University of Sydney


© Succession Picasso. Licensed by Viscopy, 2018.

Pablo Picasso, one of the most famous artists of the 20th century, designed this poster for the Second Congress of Black Writers and Artists held in Rome in 1959. The writing below his design encapsulated the aims of that Congress and the preceding one, held in Paris in 1956: “We are black and we also want to take our place in the principles that you exalt: the principle of liberty, the principle of equality, the principle of fraternity.” In the repertory of organizations and events that comprise twentieth century internationalism, we can think of the Black Writers and Artists congresses as international in scope and method. The primary organisers of both Congresses, the Senegalese senator and intellectual Alioune Diop and his wife Christiane Yandé Diop, also ran the journal and publishing house, Présence africaine. These projects were animated by the Diops’ shared belief that cultural change could effect long lasting political change.

In the aftermath of the Second World War and as increasing numbers of African territories gained their independence from empire, Alioune Diop had seen an opportunity for a more equal future. He believed that international organizations such as UNESCO, with their emphasis upon cultural exchange as a means of overcoming problems such as racism, were the way to achieve a peaceful international order. Nevertheless, he thought it important that the peoples of the African diaspora take a hand in inventorying and celebrating their cultures on the world stage to ensure that the “world of tomorrow” would actually “be built by all men.” (Diop, 1947). In an intellectual and political context still shaped by a belief in Western civilizational superiority, Diop and the constellation of intellectuals involved with Présence africaine faced a daunting task.

The first Congress of 1956 was key to Diop’s international thinking.  The result of the Congress, the establishment of the Société de culture africaine or Society of African Culture (S.A.C.), was designed to disseminate African culture world-wide as a direct counterattack to race prejudice. The constitution of S.A.C. declared its aim to ‘unite by the means of solidarity and friendship men of culture from the black world’ and thereby achieve ‘the cooperation, development and the improvement of universal culture.’ (S.A.C., 1956). Underpinning this goal was the belief that its achievement would promote a respect for the rights of man and the desire to work for equal economic rights for each individual of every human community regardless of their race or religion. The organization’s founding resolutions explicitly identified S.A.C.’s purpose as congruent with the Charter of the United Nations and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. S.A.C. aimed ‘to safeguard liberty of dialogue between men of all origins and of all political orientation and of all races’ (S.A.C., 1956).

This same anti-racist rhetoric also linked the S.A.C. to the aims of UNESCO. The organization’s founding constitution blamed the origins of the Second World War on “the denial of democratic principles of the dignity, equality and mutual respect of men, and by the propagation, in their place… of the doctrine of men and races.’ (UNESCO, 2004). UNESCO’s own cultural emphasis was aligned with the S.A.C.’s thinking on how race should be tackled; it also sought to discredit such doctrines through education initiatives and the publication of scientific studies. French anthropologists Alfred Métraux, Claude Lévi-Strauss, and Michel Leiris were central to this UNESCO agenda. Whilst the three men still believed that most African peoples required the tutelage of Western powers in order to reach political maturity, they all advocated cultural pluralism. As a result, all three would become involved in Présence africaine initiatives. Leiris, in particular was committed to emphasising the important contributions that ‘african cultures could … bring to a universal civilization.’ (Leiris, 1949).

The African American social scientist E. Franklin Frazier was also a staunch advocate of this intertwined UNESCO and S.A.C. perspective. Frazier had been hired by UNESCO to chair the committee discussions on the organization’s controversial first Statement on Race (1951). Whilst the Statement had become embroiled in controversies over the nature of race, Frazier himself continued to work for UNESCO until 1953 and also supported Diop’s S.A.C. initiative. These connections helped Diop to gain S.A.C. the status of the first African Non-Governmental Organisation Consultant to UNESCO.

At the 1959 Congress, a speech by the UNESCO delegate M. P. Lebar extolled the importance of S.A.C’s work promoting the significance of black culture. He referred to “the joint action undertaken by UNESCO, in the setting of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the United Nations in 1948, against certain forms of discrimination, especially in the field of education.” (Lebar, 1959). By then, eight African countries (Ethiopia, Ghana, Liberia, Libya, Morocco, the United Arab Republic, the Sudan and Tunisia) had become member states of UNESCO and a further three were associate members (Nigeria, Sierra-Leone and Somaliland). S.A.C. itself had made great efforts towards a representative membership, establishing national branches in Burkina Faso, Burundi, Cameroon, the Ivory Coast, Gabon, Ghana, Mali, Haiti and in the United States.

One of the key resolutions of the 1959 Congress was to stress the importance of establishing a regular festival of the Arts of the Black World. Almost twenty years later, in 1978, UNESCO officially endorsed this resolution. The driving force behind the resolution was “to restore to African Negro peoples the ability to exercise the cultural authority and initiative necessary to the life and to the renewal of the values of the civilization of mankind.” This step by UNESCO emerged after years of pressure from S.A.C. and other African diaspora groups. At the first Pan-African Festival of Arts and Culture held in Algiers in 1969 and again in 1976 at a meeting of the Organization of African Unity held in Port Louis in Mauritius, resolutions asserted the importance of such a festival. In the face of centuries of discrimination and oppression by Western civilizations, men and women from throughout the African diaspora sought to affirm the significance of black cultural contributions to the world. Diop was not the only one who believed that doing so would help to combat negative stereotypes about black inferiority. These institutional and conceptual links between the S.A.C. and UNESCO continued to be productive through the global divisions of the Cold War. From 1958, S.A.C. played a significant role as formal consultant to UNESCO. The organization’s members were heavily involved in drafting and disseminating the 1965 International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination as well as UNESCO’s 1978 Declaration on Race and Racial Prejudice.

The S.A.C. no longer exists in the same form; in 2006 it was succeeded by the African Community of Culture or the Communauté africaine de la culture (CAC). The Nigerian playwright and poet and the first African to be awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, Wole Soyinka, became the presiding officer. He is the latest in a distinguished line of Presidents which has included the Haitian diplomat and writer, Jean Price-Mars, and one of the founding figures of the French cultural and political movement of négritude, Aimé Césaire. The group has done a great deal to publicise and publish work by francophone African artists and intellectuals including Léopold Sédar Senghor, Mongo Beti, Cheikh Anta Diop, Chinua Achebe and Kwame Nkrumah. Perhaps its most famous publication is Aimié Césaire’s Discourse on Colonialism, a 1955 long-form essay which fiercely criticised imperialism. Throughout these changes, the group has continued its relationship, and responsibilities with UNESCO. The C.A.C. has also continued to publish the journal Présence africaine and coordinate conferences and exhibitions around the African diaspora. Posters such as the one Picasso designed for the 1959 Congress, have become a touchstone for mapping out the networks of thinkers, artists, and activists engaged in the projects of internationalism and anti-racism.


References :

Diop, Alioune. "Niam N’goura ou les raisons d’être de Présence Africaine, "  Présence Africaine. 1 (November –December 1947): 11- 13.

Leiris, Michel. "Enquête sur les relations entre les cultures les nègres d’Afrique et les arts sculpturaux," 18, August, 1949, UNESCO/PHS/CE/9, Unesco Archives, Paris, France.

UNESCO.  "Statuts de la société africaine de culture." Organisation Internationale Non-Gouvernementale (ONG)’ AG 8 ONG1, File 143, UNESCO Archives, Paris, France.

UNESCO. "Constitution of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization.” in Basic Texts, 2004 Edition. Paris: UNESCO, 2004.

Lebar, P. “Address by M.P. Lebar UNESCO representative at the Congress,” Présence 
Africaine 24-25. February-May, 1959.

UNESCO. “Resolution 4/1.2/8, adopted by the General Conference at its twentieth session.” The Records the General Conference, Paris 24 October to28 November, 1978. Vol 1. Paris: United Nations, 1979. 84. Also published in “Record of the General Conference of UNESCO.” Présence Africaine. 109: 1 (1979): 165.