The 1820 Settlers Monument, home to the National Arts Festival, stands over Grahamstown like a monstrous, face-brick spaceship. If one looks out across from it at night one can see how the pointillist constellations of lights of the suburban centre give way to the sparser glare of stadium lights standing over the township areas of Fingo Village and Joza, among others. The lights from Bathurst Street leading up over Makana’s Kop form the shape of a question mark accusing and questioning its onlookers, an apt geographical idiosyncrasy for the current self-evaluation running through this year’s festival.
During the days and early evenings a number of kids from the poorer areas of town, some of them street children, stand around, faces painted, miming for spare change.
A little way away from the monument, Peter Andrew Hamish van Heerden has been living in an ox-wagon for the festival. At seven o’clock every evening, as part of his installation piece Totanderkuntuit, he emerges naked, from behind his old South African flag, his body scrawled with black words, and proceeds to hang himself by his yoke, tied to his feet and scrotum, while bearing his asshole to the cold, spluttering winter night, and then sticking his head in a mound of sand. One of the more extraordinary performances around, Van Heerden aims to explore ideas of white identity, anger and alienation in the new South Africa.
These elements, concentrated within a small area, probe and unveil the competing and conflicting identities and the geographic disarticulation of Grahamstown as well as the context of cultural and social negotiation in which the festival arises.
This is the 30th anniversary of the National Arts Festival, coinciding with the 100th anniversary of Rhodes University, and, of course, 10 years of our democracy. The coincidence has elicited numerous rhetorical flourishes, particularly at the opening at the Settlers Monument, where speakers included the Minister of Arts and Culture, Pallo Jordan, and the Eastern Cape Premier, Nosimo Balindlela. Questions are being raised about the direction of the festival, with optimists emphasising the fact that it has to become more representative, providing greater benefit to the poor.
There are significant moves to integrate these areas into the festival, both economically and culturally. The National Arts Council, in collaboration with Transnet, has set up a truck in the PJ Dlephu stadium in Joza to provide free concerts. The stadium, with its concrete walls and barbed wire entwined with plastic bags, looks like a military camp from the outside, but artists such as Zola and Rebecca Malope have been drawing large crowds.
Another initiative is the 800 Rooms project, initiated by Balindlela. A number of local township residents received cooking and business skills training so they could turn their homes into bed and breakfasts over the festival. The idea was to sponsor hundreds of artists and government officials to stay in the homes and to open them to the public.
I stayed in a room in Extension 4, Joza, and enjoyed the experience and hospitality. The paraffin heater was certainly toastier than the hot-water bottle I had been clutching desperately in this icebox of a town over the previous evenings. In the morning I awoke to a donkey cart passing by, its green paint peeling with the words ‘We need each otherâ€ on the side, and a pack of eight ragged dogs trailing it.
I spoke to Balindlela at the B&B she was staying at in Extension 8, Joza. She is charming and likeable and is becoming increasingly popular. ‘The people of Joza and other townships own the festival. They now see it as something that also benefits them,â€ she said.
The 800 Rooms project has been facing significant problems, though. Festival newspaper Cue has reported that a number of the B&B owners are complaining of not receiving guests. Marketing and booking procedures have been poor. Balindlela is frank about these problems, admitting that elements have been handled unprofessionally but expressing a commitment to future improvements.
Festival committee chairperson Mannie Manim said the festival has become more racially representative since the Eastern Cape government joined as a sponsor in 2001. ‘As the programme becomes more representative … what’s on the stage starts to match who’s in the auditorium.â€
The challenging sentiment is contained in exhibitions like Initiation as a Rite of Passage, curated by Moleleki Ledimo, and featuring works by Thembinkosi Goniwe and Churchhill Madikida and traditional sculptures. The exhibition explores the dilemma around circumcision, and issues of identity and representation. Images of bloodied phalluses are disturbing, but the exhibition portrays an acute consciousness of the dilemmas of tradition being represented in outside contexts.
However, despite the need and call for challenge and experimentation, the theatre programme over the first half of the main festival has largely failed to probe new ground. Included are major practitioners such as Reza de Wet, Andrew Buckland and Peter-Dirk Uys.
De Wet’s Breathing In creates a powerful imaginative landscape. She immerses one in a gritty, nauseating space where the underlying violence and symbols of desire extrude, bleeding into the lives of her characters, creating a theatrical space that lurches between a hardened gritty realism and dream-like absurdity. Breathing In is set in a cow byre in the dying years of the South African Anglo-Boer War. A manipulative, dispossessed widower, played by Antoinette Kellerman, denies her dying daughter sleep to keep her alive.
Buckland’s new play Fuse, created by Ubom!, is typical Buckland territory. The story is millennial and apocalyptic, involving the outbreak of a disease that kills off humanity, but the characters, notably two rats that genetically engineer a human being, make this possibility rather welcoming.
Sean Mathias’s Antigone is more innovative. It sets Sophocles’s tragedy in a militaristic post-modern landscape, where Western, Arabic and African images fuse and dissolve, deferring any definite location. A screen above the stage broadcasts news, war imagery and entranced dancing crowds.
Sophocles’s classic is rearticulated in a context of terrorism, Aids and globalisation. Creon, played by John Kani, becomes a figure of totalitarianism and intransigence. Mathias’s conception, however, fails somewhat in its execution, predominantly owing to the disparate performances of the cast.
Mike van Graan’s Green Man Flashing achieves what none of the main shows do in pushing new boundaries. The work is a political thriller, revolving around an estranged inter-racial couple whose return from exile breaks their relationship apart and leads to a sequence of tragic events. It provides an acute dissection of many of the most pressing contemporary political issues — the challenge of party loyalty to institutional justice, the intersection of national agendas and conflicts with personal lives, the formation of new racial and gendered hierarchies. The scripting is tight, and deals with these large issues in a manner that remains gripping and, at times, moving.
It seems then that the National Arts Festival is showing signs of growing pains. Ticket sales and attendance have increased from last year. The periphery is increasingly shifting into the centre, disturbing it and probing it but, in many respects, a new vision is still inchoate.