/ 30 June 2012

Feeling the freedom of the festival

Ferial Haffajee speaking at the Free Thinkers lecture.
Ferial Haffajee speaking at the Free Thinkers lecture.

I’m still mulling over Ferial Haffajee’s lecture as I round the corner past the stroopwafel cart, thinking I might catch some free jazz on the far end of the Village Green. Earlier, at the first talk of Free Thinkers lecture in the National Arts Festival’s Think!Fest programme, Haffajee, the editor of City Press, spoke of her embroilment in the controversy over Brett Murray’s painting, The Spear.

Speaking to a sold-out amphitheatre, she described the boycott and her subsequent retraction and apology as “an olive branch extended in citizenship,” but went on to say she regretted the gesture.

“My freedom died a little that day – taken by my own hand.”

Though I’m surrounded by this carnival atmosphere, full of smiling people, I feel the stab of reality as I consider the fragility of freedom.

Then I spy a smiling girl sitting at the corner outside one of the enormous white vender tents. Next to her is a handwritten sign: “Write you name in Korean,” it says. Big cards, R5, small ones, R3 and henna tattoos can be done for R10. I sense she’s probably not an official vendor, and likely here on more ad-hoc terms – much like the roving tarot card readers you find sprawled on blankets.

But I’m struck by this enterprising young girl — legitimate or no.

Before I know it she’s waving me over. “What’s your name?” she asks brightly. I tell I don’t want my name in Korean, I’m just curious what inspired her to trade her talents at the Festival. The girl insists upon writing my name anyway. She’s Songhyun Lee, she says, a Matric student and the local Diocesan School for Girls. She got the idea because her friends are always asking her to write their names and words in Korean.

So she thought she’d try it out at Festival, make a little cash over the school holiday.

“It’s really more about meeting people, though,” she says, adding that she usually doesn’t charge.

“It’s so much fun giving out free names for people. It’s a nice way to advertise and introduce my own written language.” I leave with my Korean name in hand, feeling a little restored. I think of Haffajee’s self-imposed challenge to also seek the positive stories, people doing good things.

Making people understand

Later in the day I catch I Love You When You’re Breathing, a production of the acclaimed Handspring Puppet Company. It’s another sold-out theatre. The crowd ranges vastly in age and demographic. Following the twenty-five minute production is a question and answer session with director, Jason Potgieter and puppeteer, Gabriel Marchand.

A teenager stands up and asks, through a sign language interpreter: “Imagine a room full of deaf people without an interpreter. How could you have changed the show to make people understand?”

The audience applauds the question, so eloquently put, from an exceptionally insightful youth.

My final show of the day is to see Afrikaans rapper Jitsvinger. The noodly figure steps into the spotlight darned in hip-hop garb. He jokes that he raps in “Afrikaap”. I’m skeptical about how he and the more conventional jazz ensemble are going to work out their differences on stage.

They start out slow and then Jitsvinger gets into the groove. His poetry is both thought-provoking and playful. At times the atmosphere is charged with something ancient, almost as if the words and instruments are channelling Khoisan spirituals.

Halfway through the production, the even-keeled performer says, “I believe we’re doing a ritual right now — we’re conjuring up sounds.”

I sink into bed with the second day of the Festival now drifting from my mind.

Somehow I’ve gone deeper. I know these eleven days aren’t just about entertainment — this atmosphere asks that we rise up and get engaged in our world. Whether we’re promoting ourselves as artists or entrepreneurs or attending shows and thinking critically about what we witness, we’re taking the necessary risks. Such risks sharpen and refine each other, our society.

I fall asleep a little more hopeful.