A crazy culture spelled out

A is for art — lots of it — on Constitution Hill, courtesy of the visionary A for Albie Sachs, showing the potential for mutually beneficial partnerships between publicly funded facilities and artists. Art South Africa, the quarterly visual arts magazine, has defied the survival odds to become an indispensable art companion. And the casino-funded Apartheid Museum continues to make a deep impression on local and international visitors.

B is for the inaugural Brett Kebble Awards, won by Doreen Southwood this year.
Prize money for the winner has been doubled to R200 000 to keep it the richest art prize in the country. Kebble is still at odds with B for Bulelani Ngcuka, National Director of Public Prosecutions, who once served with distinction as chairperson on the board of the Community Arts Project. B is also for Bollywood movies that have been big business for local distributors this year.

C is for Coetzee, JM, to be exact, and his excellent Nobel Prize for Literature. C is also for country, with Cry, the Beloved Country topping the international bestseller list after a plug from Oprah 15 years after Alan Paton’s death, and Antjie Krog’s Country of My Skull, adapted for the screen with Juliette Binoche playing the lead. Then there is C for the chicken that starred in a piece of Brett Bailey snuff theatre on the Baxter’s stage, and got theatre on to the front pages for a few days.

D is for Donny Gordon, the South African businessman who has donated £20-million to the arts in England and Wales for the next five years. D6 is the independent District Six Museum that has just garnered a Prins Claus Award worth â,¬25 000. And D is for death that has claimed a host of arts personalities including theatre-makers Ramalao Makhene, Ivan Sylvester, Pip Friedman, Ken Gampu and Nancy Diuguid, filmmaker Lionel Ngakane, musicians Allen Kwela and Frank Leepa, artist Trevor Makhoba, dancer Jackie Semela and administrators Allan Joseph (former State Theatre CEO), John Esterhuizen (Jazzathon) and television soapie theme composer Siva Dewar.

E is for Egoli, the M-Net soap opera that reached its 3000th episode earlier this year, making it the longest-running local television programme. E is for eish!, and for the much-hyped Bookeish International Book Fair that was postponed indefinitely after failing to reach its initial funding targets.

F is for the state-of-the-art film studio to be built in Cape Town by Anant Singh’s Dreamworld Film City consortium with the help of government funds. F is also for the mainly private and lottery-funded festivals that help keep the arts alive. And then there is Freedom Park, a large-scale heritage project that has been getting much publicity — and public funding — lately.

G is for the Guinness Book of World Records with a new entrant from South Africa: a ballet class of 530 dancers at Canal Walk coordinated by Andrew Warth of the Cape Town City Ballet. Gibson Kente, the “father of black theatre”, announced that he was HIV-positive and a fund was launched to support him.

H is for heritage, with much of it being lost through budget cuts, loss of key staff, theft, lack of political will and vision. Honorary doctorates have been bestowed on arts and culture personalities Es’kia Mphahlele and Pieter-Dirk Uys, Gomolemo Mokae and chairperson of the D6 Board Terence Fredericks. H is for hell, which is where the Minister for Arts, Culture, Science and Technology, Ben Ngubane, suggested that artists should go.

I is for Idols, still struggling to do the politically correct thing and produce a black winner.

J is for the Johannesburg Development Agency and for their incredible transformation of Newtown, showing how investment in cultural infrastructure can help to improve depressed parts of the inner city. Jay is also for Bernard and the Johannesburg Civic Theatre, probably the country’s most successful theatre complex.

K is for Kani, John, shifted to the side at the Market Theatre, strutting his stuff in his critically acclaimed Nothing But the Truth, replaced as the National Arts and Culture (NAC) chairperson and at the centre of a storm about governance and alleged financial irregularities at the council. K is also for the koeksister monument erected in Orania, where inhabitants can have the white icing on their cake and eat it. And then there are the Kora All Africa Music Awards, with South African artists angering the organisers by not attending and claiming their prizes.

L has to be for the lottery, slow to process applications, but making substantial contributions to the sustainability of major cultural events and companies. L is also for Laugh it Off, and Justin Nurse whose satirical rip-offs of logos have earned the wrath of big corporates.

M is for Mosala (Itumeleng) and Mokae (Gomolemo), the BC brethren who have claimed the strategic positions of Director General of Arts and Culture and chairperson of the NAC respectively. Marilyn Martin was reinstated on the council after being dumped illegally by Ngubane. M is also for Mzwakhe Mbuli, the People’s Poet, walked free after serving time for bankrobbery.

N is for the Network for Arts and Culture South Africa, the first umbrella body to represent the arts and culture sector since the dissolution of the National Arts Coalition in 1997. N is also for the North Sea Jazz Festival, voted the “tourism event of the year” in the Western Cape. And N is for the nepotism that is the major reason for the threat of strike action at the Durban Playhouse where Linda Bukhosini was appointed the Artistic Director and whose partner, Bongani Tembe, serves on the Board.

O is for the Open Letter to the culture minister, Ngubane, signed by scores of high-profile artists, decrying the undermining of democracy and freedom of expression in the sector through the political appointment of chairpersons of publicly funded bodies and the tighter political control of institutions in receipt of public funds.

P is for Plagiarism that spread like a plague in journalism, and even affected the arts, with Gavin Younge accused of copying the designs for his prize-winning works at the Cape Town International Convention Centre. Mark Gordon, vice-chairperson of the NAC, was accused of using unacknowledged extracts from an American author and from the government Department of Arts and Culture (DAC) website for his book Uncovering the Music Industry in South Africa. Then there is Darrel Bristow-Bovey — but enough has been said about him. P is also for pornography, with senior Robben Island Museum staff dismissed for allegedly viewing it on the Internet.

Q is for the quotas of black members suggested for struggling ballet companies and orchestras in exchange for the dubious prize of public funding.

R is for radio, and for Art of the Matter that both tells arts news and makes it news. Interviews with Ngubane and Gomolemo Mokae broadcast on radio have had a lasting impact on the arts. R is also for the roads in Newtown that have had their names changed to those of artists like Gerard Sekoto and Barney Simon.

S is for a living national treasure, the stylish, sensual Sibongile Khumalo. S is also for the SA Music Awards, with hooded kwaito star, Mzekezeke, the big winner. And S is for survivors like ballet dancer Johan Jooste, shot in the back during an attempted hijacking, and Ray Phiri coming through his second major car accident that claimed the life of his wife. S is also for Sack (Steven) — there may not be many career opportunities for white men at the DAC, but there are in Johannesburg Metro where he is about to assume the top arts and culture job.

T is for the Trinity Session, the hip, innovative visual arts collective whose work has made a huge impact in Johannesburg and who will run the new purpose-built gallery at the Johannesburg Civic Theatre. T is also for Theatresports in Cape Town that celebrated its 10th anniversary this year, making it the longest-running theatre show in the country.

U is for Uys, Pieter-Dirk, who called for President Thabo Mbeki to be replaced after he stated that he did not know anyone with HIV or who had died of Aids. U is also for Unesco, which decided to pursue an international convention on cultural diversity to protect arts and culture against the adverse effects of foreign cultural products dominating local economies as a result of liberal trade agreements.

V is for the Verdict of the judge that allowed the State Theatre run of Princess Magogo to proceed after artists claimed that their right of first refusal to their original roles for five years had not been honoured. 

W is for Winners, with many local artists being acclaimed on international stages. W is also for the Weakest Link that took to our television screens with award-winning playwright Fiona Coyne playing the role of quiz bitch. W is for the integrated Wits School of the Arts that was officially launched this year in its new premises.

X is for making your cross in next year’s elections that may, or may not, have some positive effect on the arts in the country or your province.

Z is for Zapiro, the country’s premier cartoonist, who donated the proceeds of the launch of his latest book to the Treatment Project, representing the increasing involvement of artists in a new struggle, the struggle for life in a democratic South Africa.

In summary, 2003 was supposed to be the year of Hope. H for the high road to be chosen by Ngubane in the last year he had before the next elections. O for optimism, with the establishment of a new department separate from science and technology, a new director general, a new deputy minister, new boards for the NAC and the National Film and Video Foundation and a new civil society formation. P for using these to build a platform on which to revitalise the arts sector. E for expectations; great expectations of rapprochement, consultation and partnerships in the best interests of the sector.

Instead, the year ends in relative disaster, with the image and integrity of the NAC in tatters, relations between the organised arts sector and the government as low as they have ever been, the prospect of international donors withdrawing their funds from the NAC and the gradual closure of democratic spaces within the arts and culture sector.

So what of the future? In a word, Nacsa. N for national, A for activism, CS for civil society and A for artists.

Artists create and produce excellent work no matter what the environment. But changing the macro conditions to ensure that their work is sustainable and that their constitutional rights and democratic interests are protected will only happen when they act together as civil society on a national scale to pursue and defend their collective interests.

As we mark a decade of democracy in 2004, Nacsa — like national formations representing other sectoral interests — represents the fledgeling hope for artists to take more responsibility for their lives and livelihood.

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