All about identity

Whether festival organisers and sponsors deny, acknowledge, ignore or try to manipulate it, factional-based arts events will play politics.

The Klein Karoo Nasionale Kunstefees in Oudtshoorn may compel culturally-minded Afrikaners to go out soul-searching. But it’s an act that all too often goes up in the merry smoke of braaivleis fires, dispersing in jolly boere rock ‘n roll.

However, the Aardklop Nasionale Kunstefees, which runs for the fifth time in Potchefstroom from September 24 to 27, presents itself with some gravitas as an arts event with soul and consideration. It is the thinking, modern Boer’s arty party. At least it boasts a vibey name to balance that gawky “nasionale kunstefees” bit, which still sounds like those old, hard-arsed days.

The town of Potchefstroom, with its specific history and geography, offers a special kind of milieu for this annual playground. A major army base of the then regime—now transformed—a university that proudly projected its doctrine of Christelike hoêr-onderwys—now reinvented as mover and shaker for new Afrikaans thought. All this presents a crossroads of cultures, the past and present offer some significant props and actors for staging a hearty arts happening.

Take Frans J van Rensburg’s bilingual Sellelied—a dramatised poetry programme. Forty “real” prisoners from the “real” ignoble Potchefstroom prison will line the hall as the audience enters. At the start of the show (roughly translatable as “prison cell songs”) the doors will be locked (a requirement of the Department of Correctional Services) and while the actors do the words, the jail men will add their bit of rugged ambience in sound and sight.

Van Rensburg, himself an Afrikaner of the new age (he grew up in a road camp near Carolina) with an unusual doctorate in performance arts from Potch University, won the organisers’ commission in the literary art section. His piece, which uses words by jailed poets, he says, investigates the physical and spiritual confinement of a prisoner in a ruthless milieu.

Obvious names of previous long-term prisoners such as Breyten Breytenbach and Herman Charles Bosman feature, but “old” Afrikaners might have a hard time listening to the verses of Tokyo Sexwale, Jeremy Cronin, Frank Anthony, Dennis Brutus and the People’s Poet, Mzwakhe Mbuli.

As behoves a take-me-more-seriously art festival, such programmes abound. Literature is high on the agenda. As is theatre. According to the organisers more than 60% of the work is new.

Often these festivals are promoted with a have-to-see surprise show. And, as has been the case with many recently, ace director Marthinus Basson has again been called on to provide the centrepiece.

The Flemish author Tom Lanoye spends a lot of time in South Africa and his Mamma Medea, based on the Euripides tragedy, was written here and, according to the bumf, reflects that influence. Antjie Krog has taken on the massive text translation into Afrikaans and composed a remarkable script. Designed and directed by Basson, it includes Anthea Thompson and Antoinette Kellermann in the large cast.

For English audiences, the bait is visiting British actress Linda Marlowe’s Berkoff’s Women, which brings to life female characters from Steven Berkoff’s best-known works. Neil McCarthy’s Veldfire about the Anglo-Boer South African War should also be a draw card. As should Amelda Brand’s Vuur—“an exploration of the human need for security and permanence”.

In the annual Sol Plaatje Discourse Series (the writer, politician, philosopher and dramatist lived in the neighbourhood), the debates’ lofty aims are proffered as “a contribution to better understanding among South Africans”.

Again Afrikaans is central to the intellectual sing-song, but this year they’ve called in the young ones (rock singer Karen Zoid, poet Sandile Dikeni and journalist Toast Coetzer), the heavies (Denis Beckett, Christa van Louw, Potch’s Theuns Eloff and Hein Willemse), the power players (economic professor Servaas van der Berg and Salie Manie, African National Congress MP) and the thinkers (futurologist Piet Muller, Unisa’s Christina Landman and Judge Eberhard Bertelsmann).

The cherry on the top of any culture jamboree such as Aardklop—the treat that has to convince everyone that it is serious—is the component of visual arts it offers. Aardklop looks pretty good in that league.

This year’s invited “festival artist” is Kevin Brand of Cape Town. His presence cuts into what should be the serious Afrikaans debate: identity and what to do in the modern South Africa.

Born in District Six, between Afrikaans and English, Brand’s Capey demeanour has lent powerful expression to his work. His has been some of the most effective protest art of the past. Central to the Potch show is his now famous installation, Here XVII, cardboard chaps commenting on Dutch colonialism. But his new paintings show a highly personal shift from his public protestations to “explorations of banality”. His is clearly a statement in the Afrikaner debate that underpins the festival itself.

The politics of an Afrikaans art festival, such as Aardklop, may seem to have morphed into the sphere of the personal and individual. Of course, much fun is to be had there too.

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