The National Arts Festival is an exercise in tolerance — tolerance of Grahamstown’s new parking meter system, for example. The local press has called it a ‘parking war”. What it boils down to is the use of car guards as mobile meters. When one alights from one’s vehicle a bibbed guard keys one’s registration number into a hand-held computer. When one returns, the same individual pockets one’s cash. Up until the start of the festival on June 27 there was conflict between the authorities and residents about parking rates and the geographical extent of the new deal. Just hours ahead of the festival’s opening, the issue was resolved. And so it took off, this employment plan initiated by the local Makana council with an empowerment firm called Diversified Parking Systems. As Grahamstown grumbled through its new street law, the artists and audiences pulled in. In front of the quaint Victorian façades stalls popped up, while a gauntlet of beggars trundled to their posts.Throughout its 29 years the appropriateness of this town as a location for the cultural event of national importance has been hotly debated. In fact, the issue of whether Grahamstown’s annual jamboree embodies a national culture has come under scrutiny time and again. Now some new turns have inched this discussion closer to being resolved. The idea of a national arts festival would of necessity have to include a notion of nationhood. And nationhood, by its very definition, has to include a sense of belonging. Arriving for the festival one invariably wonders just how all-inclusive the experience is going to be. The level of sponsorship obviously says something about marketers’ perceptions of such an event. If the public is buying into an idea, you can be sure powerful brand names are too. This year — the second since Standard Bank pulled back as sole sponsor — the event is fully endorsed, even though it has not been by the guardians of
style. There’s the Lottery, the SABC,the Eastern Cape government, the National Arts Council and the scaled-down involvement of Standard Bank. And so this new set presides (in tandem with the festival committee), almost as tolerant parents, over the nation’s ideas. Meanwhile, the children play and play. And play. And as we’ve learnt from the Bard: play is a mirror of life. If the 2003 edition of the National Arts Festival has been about anything, it has been a grand-scale meditation on the subject of home. The notion of home has hovered as a symbolic catch-all above so many cultural products that it’s almost cause for alarm. Or rather, cause for celebration. That’s if one understands that by interrogating home, artists are turning away from having to deal prescriptively with themes like race, democracy and reconciliation and beginning to look deeper within.The main platform for this exploration has been the festival exhibition Homing in, curated by Durban’s Virginia MacKenny and Cape Town’s Paul Edmunds. They present installations by eight emerging artists whose work deals with the South African home as ‘a contested site of meaning”. This space, they note in their catalogue, is ‘dominated by a colonial heritage, disrupted by migrant labour and historically problematised by the old regime’s creation of homelands”. As South Africans, they write, we are ‘searching for a place one might legitimately call home”.Sparse as it is, Homing in presents an object-laden vision of a place of disorientation. In a white room Durban’s Kelly Tuck has placed a white rocking chair facing a painted, barred window. Matthew Hindly uses electronic surveillance equipment to time the moment that the viewer spends looking at his empty work. And that’s it for images of security. Contrary to expectation, security contraptions are not the only objects that characterise the contradictions of the South African home.Inspired by the writings of WEB du Bois, Durban’s Thando Mama presents a self-portrait in video of himself watching television. Against a soundtrack of chatter about blackness nothing really happens, while the light from the video flickers on Mama’s bare black skin.It is this sense of ennui that characterises much art of the moment. ‘It’s an understated politics,” MacKenny says. ‘It’s a personal politics that relates to the country’s politics, or its purported vision of itself. And it comes out of incredible constriction. In the Homing in show there’s a lot of underlying debate or engagement with constriction and voicelessness, or attempts to find some kind of place to speak. In some cases the silences are the most articulate things there.’I think there is a longing for home values. Home is a seriously contested arena, with the highest child abuse figures in the world, the highest crime rates in the world and the highest HIV in the world. All this is centred in the home. I think many of these works are quite negative reflections, but I don’t think they’re only negative. I think that the fact that it is being grappled with is positive.”This grappling doesn’t always result in celebration. On its main stages the festival has presented work that portrays domestic life as riddled with conflict and betrayal. The South African home is a battleground and, as in group therapy, the cultural platform is providing an upsetting role play.Jay Pather’s Home takes its audience on a journey to nine locations where women are stressed breadwinners (Nelisiwe Rushualang dances with money literally pinned to her, to indicate her status as bread-winner), where a migrant labourer is forced to call a bed a home. Not surprising that memories emerge like cadavers from cupboards and from the wings. Regarding home life, there is much that South Africans would rather forget. Families are falling apart in works by Pieter-Dirk Uys, Yael Farber and Chris Mann. Uys’s play Auditioning Angels is a melodrama set against the crumbling infrastructure of the Johannesburg hospital, where Aids orphans have to be abducted by nurses in order for them to get the attention they deserve. Here, evidence of a troubling child rape turns out to be that of a sadomasochistic game played by pre-adolescents who’ve picked up tips from what they’ve seen on television. There is an inherent irony in witnessing Uys, the tireless campaigner for freedom from any form of censorship, taking a moral stance on the type of sexual material available to South Africa’s homes.But this is a new era, one in which leaders are calling for moral regeneration as part of the African renaissance dream. So it’s not surprising that artists are questioning what values this regeneration should include while showing horrendous pictures of family life in decay. There’s the tale of family murder in Farber’s Molora, in which children set out to kill their mother to avenge their father’s death. In turning the plot into a tale of forgiveness, Farber offers a plea to end what, in South Africa, has become a ‘cycle of blood for blood”. While Molora‘s bloody purging offers no solution, it hints at resolution. This is useful, given the storm in the teacup that raged around Chris Mann’s Thuthula. It has shown just how volatile the retelling of domestic history can be. Finally two images by women stand out as cries for a sense of resolution around domestic issues. First there is Snow White, a video work by Standard Bank Young Artist Award winner Bernie Searle. In it Searle, a large black woman, kneels naked, covered in flour while kneading dough. Like a robot she sways to and fro, devoid of personality — a victim of her task.The second is a quilt produced by Helen Granville of the South African Quilters’ Guild. It shows fragmented images of fire, and mass-produced images of wild animals stare out of its folds. It’s called The Rape of Zimbabwe’s Farms. It’s part of a new cultural category: white protest craft. Consider this when next you decorate your home.