Syncretism? Arts fest says no to all that 1990s nonsense
National Arts Festival bid a belated voetsek to forced Rainbow Nation platitudes and told it like it was
There were many different festivals going on at the Standard Bank National Arts Festival in Makhanda (formerly Grahamstown). This hydra-headed festival of festivals branched off not only into its many different genres (dance, theatre, film, visual art etc), but also into different generations of artists coming from many different cultures using many different languages. The festival catered to the broadest spectrum of audiences. Whether they came for light parody (Lord of the Flings) or esoteric types dancing naked in layers of plastic (Between Horizons), pretty much everybody would have found something to appreciate.I was like a kid in a candy store, seeing four or five shows a day, rushing from lecture to drama to interactive virtual reality experience. I love the atmosphere of the festival – one can strike up an intense conversation with strangers while waiting in a queue, or when eating at the same table. In some ways it feels as though you are reconnecting with people you haven’t met before.This year, the overall standard of the festival was high and I saw a great many shows which were intelligent and entertaining. Walking out of the new play, The Borrow Pit, by Young Artist Winner for Drama Gemma Kahn, I overheard Malcolm Purkey (formerly of the Market Theatre) saying: “It’s like the old days.”
I think he was referring to the fact that Kahn’s play appears to have no overt connection to issues of race, or to contemporary South African culture. Instead, it’s a loose retelling (often in a German accent) of the relationships 20th-century painters Francis Bacon and Lucian Freud had with their respective muses.
It felt as though festival artists were doing the shows they wanted to do, rather than feeling burdened by social obligations and responsibilities towards “relevance”.The new executive producer of the festival, Ashraf Johaardien, encouraged his curators to programme shows around the theme “Silences and Voices”, while his main criteria were innovation, creativity and excellence.
Johaardien told me he was “tempted to make radical changes” when he took the position last year, but ultimately “in its 43 years it’s been the audience’s festival and we have to protect that legacy”.
So he was happy to give audiences what they wanted, such as the traditional ballet (Romeo and Juliet) and the gala symphony concert, both of which were sold out. Johaardien also said the programming set out to juxtapose “high concept with entertainment”, so he fought for works he believed in: productions which might be more challenging and which push the boundaries of artistic expression, such as the work of performance artist Gavin Krastin, Yet to be Determined.Johaardien worked hard to strengthen the festival’s international profile and to encourage collaborations with foreign embassies. I heard many more languages than usual spoken at the Village Green and saw, for the first time, a German-language production on the Main (Hamlet). There were collaborations with the Netherlands, Sweden, Switzerland, Canada, Belgium and other countries. On one day I saw shows in German, Xhosa (Seeing Red and Indlulamthi) as well as an Afrikaans translation of a French text about a Turk (Monsieur Ibrahim).So there were groundbreaking productions as well as populist fare such as, for the first time, international buskers at the Village Green performing spectacular circus feats. Also new to the festival was the Creativate Digital Art Festival which featured VR (virtual reality) installations, gaming, films and a three-day Hackathon that explored meeting points between poetry and digital arts. The free wifi courtesy of Standard Bank was also a welcome addition.Several plays dealt with gender-based violence (GBV), such as Elegy and Walk, both mourning victims of GBV. Another show, Feather On The Breath of God, celebrated the often-forgotten contribution of female classical composers.
There were also exhibitions exploring aspects of masculinity, including the multimedia Still Figuring Out What It Means To Be A Man by Giovanna del Sarto and Antonia Michaela Porter; and a remarkable new work by Musa Hlatshwayo, winner of the Young Artist for Dance award, called Udodana (The Son). Hlatshwayo’s show dealt in a poignant way with his desire to not live the life of a stereotypical Zulu man, while honouring his love for his father.Featured artist Mamela Nyamza presented four astonishing works representing the range of her innovations in performance art, physical theatre and dance. Black Privilege addressed issues of black female bodies in academic spaces and saw her transform her body from a haughty golden goddess to floundering on the floor pushing around the self-same podium which had once elevated her.Another show that stood out was the Swiss-German collaboration of Hamlet. The production has little to do with the play of the same name, but tries instead to interrogate the essential qualities of Hamlet’s existential dilemma. This was a hi-tech production featuring the enigmatic Julian Meding who continually questions the line between performance and reality, audience and spectator, while the music moves from electro-punk to a baroque quartet. It was a beautiful example of performance philosophy, presenting not just a way of thinking about art but using artistic processes as a means to understand awareness itself.The Gold Ovation Fringe Award went to Jefferson Tshabalala for his two shows Off the Record and Location, Lekeyshini, Lokasie. In these shows Tshabalala (aka J Bobs) sets up a game show in which the audience rival each other in answering questions about contemporary South Africa. Off the Record involves uneasy questions around racism in media, while Location has to do with knowledge of the townships.
In a highly entertaining fashion, Tshabalala inspires those less familiar with township life to learn more about where most South Africans live – since, as he says, “the code switching can’t just keep happening in one direction”.
J Bobs is a gregarious and witty host whose genius lies in having found a disarmingly playful setting in which to permit honest reflection on important issues and opinions.In some ways, the shows I saw made me feel as though we’ve reached the end of the enforced syncretism of the 1990s which prescribed the creation of a mutual mishmash of cultures resulting in the alleged “Rainbow Nation” aesthetic.
Considering the diversity of shows I saw – from Suzanne Vega to the “Theatre in the Backyard” initiative, which saw plays performed in a local township yard – it felt, instead, as though there was an intensification of specific cultural identities while encouraging mutual respect for difference.For example, I saw a black actor perform a white character (Tony Miyambo playing Francis Bacon in The Borrow Pit), and I saw white musicians singing in Xhosa while backing a black singer (Bongisize Mabandla). The play was about European art and Mabandla only ever spoke Xhosa, and both worked beautifully. These shows celebrated cultural differences rather than attempting to force amalgamation. Although there was respect for multiracialism, obligatory attempts at multiculturalism took a back seat. The difference is crucial.