Arts and Culture

National Arts Festival: Fab, 40 and on fire

Eugene Yiga

Artistic director Ismail Mahomed chats to Eugene Yiga about the world's second-largest arts festival as it celebrates four decades in Grahamstown.

Ismail Mahomed: 'We are still a long way from fully exploiting the value of the arts.' (Suzy Bernstein)

What do you remember most about the first time you attended the festival?
I attended the festival for the first time in 1988. The Fringe programme was highly politicised. It reflected the mood of the 1980s state of emergency. In contrast, the demographics of artists and audiences at the festival did not reflect the same political ethos as the content on its stages. The festival was significantly white.

As a practising artist at the time, I did, however, recognise that the festival had an immense power to engage the hearts and the minds of South Africans. I went from performance to performance in awe of just how many South African artists at the time were successfully using the arts to advocate for social change.

I remember with nostalgia those early Sundowner years in the Fountain Foyer [at the 1820 Settlers Monument], where people of colour would sit together around the cold braziers and discover each other’s realities. All of this was happening against the backdrop of a city that has its own very contested history and physical landscape.

How has the festival evolved over the years, in the transition from apartheid to democracy?
Racial demographics at the festival have become a lot more representative post-1994. This is evident in the case of artists and audiences. Content, however, has become far less politicised. Immediately after 1994, artists lost a “political crutch” that had literally carried their work. In the first four years after democracy, I got bored with South African theatre. With a few exceptions, the majority of artists were creating work to meet funder imperatives. In the process, much of the work lost its integrity.

The appointment of Lulu Xingwana as minister of arts and culture was a further blow to the growth of the arts. As a minister she was out of her depth. She created and promoted systems that funded “official art” over and above art for art’s sake.

Over the past number of years, artists are reclaiming their political voice and we’re once again beginning to see work that is relevant, challenging, inspiring. The 10 or 11 days of the festival still continue to demonstrate the same kind of powerful possibilities that it had during the apartheid years. Art provides us with opportunities for reflection, catharsis and healing. There is still an immense amount of reflection, catharsis and healing required if we are to continue to strengthen our democracy. As a nation, we are still a long way from fully exploiting the value of the arts. As for the historical context and the physical landscape of Grahamstown, the same ghosts from the past continue to haunt the town.

The festival contributes an estimated R350-million to the Eastern Cape’s economy every year. What wider impact do you think it has?
In a city with an incredibly high level of unemployment the festival provides a large number of seasonal jobs and training for locals. The festival contributes to the local economy in many ways. However, it is important that we measure the impact of the festival not only in monetary terms but also in the way that it contributes to nation-building.

It is crucial to note how the festival positions South Africa internationally. In recent years, international participation at the festival has increased. The number of South African productions from the festival that have travelled abroad has also increased. These productions have contributed hugely to South Africa’s public diplomacy and cultural diplomacy campaigns abroad.

At a local level, the festival continues to be a minefield with hidden cultural gems that are unearthed each year. When one considers that international icons such as Sibongile Khumalo, William Kentridge and Dada Masilo took their initial steps at the National Arts Festival, then we still need to measure the impact of this festival by the way in which it has allowed South Africa’s cultural treasure chest to overflow.

Why do you think so many people come to the festival every year?
The National Arts Festival in Grahamstown has certain unique features. As the second-largest festival in the world, it is among the few festivals that still offer so many different genres and where a curated main programme can sit comfortably alongside an open-access fringe programme. That in itself provides a stimulating and challenging space. It is out of the ordinary. Over the past 40 years the festival has also built a strong reputation for presenting work on the main programme that is underlined by excellence.

This year there will be over 2 500 performances at about 50 venues in just 11 days. How do you co-ordinate it all?
We are driven by the passion and the commitment of the artists we serve. At the same time we are also cognisant of our relationships with our audiences and our funders. As festival producers our responsibility is to join the dots between funders, artists, audiences and a range of other stakeholders. Although it is an 11-day event, it requires year-round planning. The team shares the same passion as our artists. While we remain inspired by the artists, we also assume the responsibility to offer leadership and vision into which they can ­channel their passion, enthusiasm and ­creativity.

What special celebrations will mark this year’s festival?
This year marks the 40th anniversary of the festival. It also is the 20th anniversary of South Africa as a constitutional democracy. This intersection of anniversaries provides us with wonderful opportunities for critical reflection and for mapping a way forward for the future. This year also marks the 30th anniversary of the Standard Bank Young Artist Award … provid[ing] us with an opportunity for celebration of our high achievers. It also gives an opportunity to show appreciation for one of the longest South African corporate sponsorships for the arts.

How do you see the festival evolving over the next 40 years and beyond?
Festivals are dynamic when they evolve and respond to their political and social times. As barriers begin to break down globally and as the nations across the world become more engaged with each other because of digital possibilities, the way in which we make and relate to art is bound to change.

What can we do to address the challenges to realise this vision?
For a long while in the arts sector we have been speaking about “accessibility”. If we do not move beyond that and change the dialogue to reflect “inclusion”, we are going to be left behind. For the South African arts sector, it’s not so much about what we do to reach out but rather about what we can do to break down the gatekeeping that still replicates itself like a cancer in many South African arts organisations.

The National Arts Festival takes place from July 3 to 13. Details at nationalartsfestival.co.za

Ismail Mahomed is the artistic director of the National Arts Festival. His play Cheaper than Roses, directed by Zane Meas and starring Lizz Meiring, is on at the Rhodes Box in Grahamstown on July 11 and 12, at the Athanaeum in Port Elizabeth on July 13 and at the Centurion Theatre from July 24 to 26. Book for the Centurion performances at Computicket.

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