Arts and Culture

Grahamstown National Arts Festival: 20 things not to miss

Eugene Yiga

If you're feeling overwhelmed by the idea of 2 500 performances in just 11 days, here's a guide to getting the most from this year's event.

Genres at the festival include dance, theatre, performance art, visual art, public art, music, film, jazz and more. (Supplied)
  1. Mix it up
    It’s not all about theatre. Genres at the festival include dance, performance art, visual art, public art, music, film, jazz and more. See at least one production from each genre in the festival’s main programme. Download a PDF of the main programme
  2. Take a risk on the Fringe
    With over 400 exhibitions and shows (and no enforced selection criteria), the Fringe is described as a hotbed of innovation and could be a festival on its own. So, when deciding what to watch, sprinkle in some shows from the Fringe, which include poetry, classical music and cabaret. There are always new gems to discover. Download a PDF of the Fringe programme
  3. Get to know the Standard Bank Young Artists
    This year marks the 30th anniversary of Standard Bank sponsoring the Young Artist Awards, which recognise the country’s rising stars. This year’s winners are Jahmil XT Qubeka (film), Greg Homann (theatre), Donna Kukama (performance art), Kyle Shepherd (jazz), Hasan and Husain Essop (visual art), Nicola Elliot (dance) and Njabulo Madlala (music).
  4. Feel the groove at the Jazz Festival
    Expect dozens of performances across genres, including blues, funk, world music, mainstream, Afro, modern, and all that jazz. Don’t miss top names like Sibongile Khumalo, Hugh Masekela, Jimmy Dludlu, and more from around the world. The Standard Bank Jazz & Blues Café at St Aidan’s presents a show every day at 9.30pm, with jam sessions into the early hours of the morning.
  5. Expand your mind at the Think!Fest
    Presented with support from the embassy of the Kingdom of The Netherlands and curated by Anthea Garman, Think!Fest features thought leaders giving daily talks starting at 10am. There are also book launches and authors in conversation. All discussions take place in the Blue Lecture Theatre at Rhodes University (unless otherwise stated), are an hour long (or 90 minutes for panel discussions and debates), and cost only R25.
  6. Explore the city
    Book a tour of Grahamstown or its surrounds with the Pumba Private Game Reserve Safari, the Blaauwkrantz Bridge Train Disaster Tour (email Ben and Norma Bezuidenhout) or walking tours with qualified guides (email Fleur Way-Jones). You can also discover the city from the confines of its camera obscura (at the Observatory Museum), one of the few still left in the country. 
  7. Go on a walkabout with Squaring the Circle
    Curated, designed, and produced by the Apartheid Museum, this exhibition lets you see how arts and culture have interacted with South Africa’s development from an apartheid state to a constitutional democracy. A map outlining the sites where you can find each exhibition panel is available from the box offices and information desks at the 1820 Settlers’ National Monument and the Village Green. Dress warmly to avoid the winter of discontent and wear comfortable shoes.
  8. Attend a Sundowner Concert
    While we’re on the subject of the 1820 Monument, be sure to attend one of the free performances that takes place there each evening at 5pm. The Monument has spectacular views of the city and, when you’re not watching the sun set or rise over the Eastern Cape hills, you could also enjoy a cup of Garvey’s coffee or take in an exhibition – one of this year’s highlights is Fabricate, the most comprehensive exhibition of Handspring Puppet Company’s work to date.
  9. Browse through the Village Green
    Be sure to stop by the Villiage Green for some good food and funky crafts. The market has grown from around 100 stalls back in 1989 to over 1 000 today, making it a great place to pick up some authentic souvenirs from South Africa and neighbouring states.
  10. Spend an evening at the Long Table Restaurant
    Located at 108 High Street, this restaurant is only open during the festival and is a great place to meet new people. Call 083 960 2366 or visit its Facebook page for more.
  11. Take an Art Walkabout
    For 50 minutes (and only R30), you’ll be in the good company of an artist, curator, or member of the festival’s Artistic Committee. This year’s walkabout programme includes Hasan & Husain Essop, A temporary admission, Impressions of Rorke’s Drift, Dance, 14/30: Goodman Gallery and the Standard Bank Young Artist, Wim Botha, To Be King, Awakening to Animate Earth, Eastern Cape Visual Arts, and Homing. 
  12. Push your cinematic boundaries
    For screenings you won’t see commercially, don’t miss Of Good Report (banned at last year’s Durban International Film Festival), a series of films dedicated to British author JG Ballard, Short & Sweet (short films, music videos, and short animations from around the world), and a pop-up drive/walk-in cinema experience called Analogue Eye. You can also attend the free National Film and Video Foundation workshop series aimed at young filmmakers who want to learn about scriptwriting, producing, acting, and directing.
  13. Get some spiritual uplifting
    The Spiritfest is a celebration of the arts in the context of faith and takes place in the Cathedral (unless otherwise stated), which is open to visitors from 10am to 4pm each day. Expect worship, music, bell-ringing, meditation, visual arts, and special talks. A retiring collection will be taken after each event.
  14. Experience international work
    There’s a large contingent of international work at the festival this year so be sure to choose one of the many options: Le Songe d’une nuit d’été (ballet from Switzerland based on A Midsummer Night’s Dream by Mendelssohn), Cooking with Elisa (theatre from Argentina), Kafka and Son (winner of the Outstanding Performance Award at the 2013 Prague Fringe), The Liberation of an Angry Little Man (winner of the Dioraphte Best of Amsterdam Fringe Award 2013), and more.
  15. Learn about the festival’s commitment to artist development
    Attend a workshop on the Hands On! Masks Off! programme, a platform for new entrants into the arts industry to network and be mentored by experienced professionals. Or check out the Remix Laboratory, which aims to provide community-based artists with an inspiring and challenging 10-day residency at the festival. This year, in partnership with the Swallows Project from the UK, Remix Laboratory participants will focus on developing their skills in music, spoken word, and street dancing.
  16. Enjoy a laugh
    There’s loads of comedy on offer, but the highlight is The Very Big Comedy Show, hosted by Rob van Vuuren and featuring Kurt Schoonraad, Siv Ngesi, Deep Fried Man, Chris Forrest, Kagiso “KG” Mokgadi, Martin Evans, Jamie MacDowell and Tom Thum. The once-off extravaganza (PG16) takes place at the Guy Butler Theatre on Thursday July 10 at 7pm. Tickets cost R85. https://www.nationalartsfestival.co.za/events/the-...
  17. Take advantage of freebies
    The Public Art programme features free performances in the streets of Grahamstown every day of the festival and will include a visit from Joey of War Horse fame. Remember to join ArtBucks to earn 10% credit on all your ticket purchases, which you can spend at next year’s festival. (You are coming next year, right?)
  18. Buy Cue
    The festival’s daily newspaper contains reviews, articles, daily schedules and all updates or programme changes. Check out their website for interviews and other clips.
  19. Enjoy the closing street parades
    Described as an inspiring spectacle of different colours, entrancing sounds, captivating sights and moving textures, Forty See More/Fortissimo, the 5th Annual Street Parade, takes place on Saturday July 12 and Sunday July 13. Giant puppets, stilt-walkers, marching bands, and street dancers will create a vibrant procession. See Cue for routes and times. 
  20. Have fun
    The 40th year of this spectacular festival will be bigger than ever, so book early before performances are sold out. But don’t try to see it all! Leave plenty of gaps in your schedule for unexpected Ovation Award hits or for a Q&A seesion after certain shows. If you’re not having a good time, where’s the fun in that? 

The festival takes place from July 3 to July 13. For detailed information on all the events and everything you need to know to make the most of your stay, get a free programme at selected Standard Bank and Exclusive Books branches, or download it at Nationalartsfestival.co.za.

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