The freedom to play

Tawana Kupe, Wits University’s dean of humanities, doesn’t think of his workplace as merely an institution of higher learning — he also conceives of it as a “public cultural space”.

Wits University is a place of “creativity and innovation”, a place at which all the creative disciplines are taught, he says.

Indeed, some of the university’s staff are artists in their own right: writer Bhekizizwe Peterson (scriptwriter of the 2004 feature film Zulu Love Letter), painter and printmaker Thembinkosi Goniwe, painter and novelist Veronique Tadjo and painter Vincent Baloyi. As Kupe points out, it is only natural that they “showcase some of these activities to the public”.

Three years ago Kupe founded the Wits Arts and Literature Experience (Wale) — a four-day cultural festival that features exhibitions of visual arts, theatre, music, film, literary discussions and workshops across the university’s campuses. A university press release describes Kupe as the Wale festival’s “champion-in-chief”.

Should a university be hosting festivals? I ask. Kupe replies: “If a university won’t do it, who will?”

In this way, he argues, the university is not viewed by the public as an “ivory tower” but as a site at which the gap “between theory and living reality is bridged”.

The theme of this year’s festival, which is on until April 21, is “Arts on the Edge”.

It has extended its tentacles across the city. This month, the football-themed film More than Just a Game will be screened at Arts on Main in downtown Johannesburg, and Narina Trogon, a restaurant on De Korte Street, will host Tsela, a play by young director Kabi Thulo.

The festival’s line-up features a wide array of acts that include acclaimed director John Kani’s student production of Shakespeare’s Othello, featuring his son Atandwa in the lead. Kupe describes this mixture of old and new as a “cross-generational conversation”.

The festival will also feature photographs by the controversial Zanele Muholi, who earlier this year made headlines when Arts and Culture Minister Lulu Xingwana reportedly stormed out of her exhibition.

Ivorian painter and writer Veronique Tadjo (head of Wits’s French studies) will present her exhibition, Crossing Borders, a response to the theme of migration.

Other notable names in the line-up include Staceyann Chin, an American spoken-word poet, photographer and teacher Iris Parker, award-winning performer Gina Schmukler, composer and teacher Jeanne Zaidel-Rudolph (the first woman in South Africa to obtain a doctorate in composition) and visual artist Nandipha Mthambo.

Is the university reacting to the gathering clouds of conservatism by including a line-up that tackles lesbian issues? “Partly yes,” Kupe says, but, he maintains, the challenge is integral to what a university should be about — “advancing freedom”.

This includes courting controversy and being at the forefront of innovation. “We pride ourselves in being diverse,” he says, “and diversity is the essence of freedom. We believe that a university is the space where controversy must be explored, exposed and people must get to know the controversial, including that which they don’t like or might never know.”

Kupe sees the festival as the university’s contribution to democracy. “Art is important for democracy,” Kupe says. “A university [must] provide space for the celebration of artistic and literary freedom — to be a site of democracy and the performance of democracy.”

For a full programme go to The festival runs until April 24

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Percy Zvomuya
Percy Zvomuya is a writer and critic who has written for numerous publications, including Chimurenga, the Mail & Guardian, Moto in Zimbabwe, the Sunday Times and the London Review of Books blog. He is a co-founder of Johannesburg-based writing collective The Con and, in 2014, was one of the judges for the Caine Prize for African Writing.

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