A coat of mud creates neutral ground
In line with the adage about youth being wasted on the young, one sometimes feels theatre and other performing arts are wasted on Grahamstown. A National Arts Festival suit said a few years ago that if the various productions, book launches, speeches and walkabouts were to be staged one at a time, to give the revellers time to watch each and every production, it would probably take six months to go through the whole programme.
So much to see, yet not enough time to sit through it all. But that is the nature of festivals: you cannot have it all. So instead of the scores of productions you could watch in a single day, you have to be content with seeing, at best, five or six. This means that works that touch on numerous aspects of how South Africans live go unwatched.
One might call it a waste. We live in a country whose people do not always have the same ideals and every opportunity we get to engage and talk about the state of the nation should be fully seized.
Not that those I have met here —both artists and audiences — miss the opportunity to disrupt the norms, watch productions outside of their comfort zones and generally be the model citizens we require at this critical point in South Africa’s history.
One such artist is architect Doung Anwar Jahangeer who “defaced” the family sculpture at the Settlers National Monument up the mountain by painting it with red earth as part of Making Way, an exhibition curated by Rhodes University professor and art historian Ruth Simbao.
The painting of the faces of the family, which stare majestically into the valley below, is part of Jahangeer’s project that aims to come to terms with the legacy of British imperialism. “Every facet of our being is tied to a part of our lives that we are fighting against,” said Jahangeer.
So why use red earth; why not use oil paint? “It was to reduce the perceived power to a neutral ground, to reduce us to a common denominator,” said Jahangeer, recalling the biblical metaphor about earth returning to earth.
The idea, Jahangeer said, was to appropriate what is used in the traditional (red earth is used by initiates and in other rituals in many black cultures) and deploy it “as contemporary language”.
Getting the local authorities to agree to this defacing was challenging, and included a request to insure the sculpture for a few thousand rand.
Documentary filmmaker Dylan Valley is having a similar conversation, not in English or Afrikaans but in Afrikaaps, the “bastardised” (show me a pure language, and I will show you a lie) version of Afrikaans not found in dictionaries and official documents.
The documentary Afrikaaps is an attempt, according to the makers of the film, to “explore the untold Creole history of Afrikaans, using what Valley knows best: hip-hop, humour and personal perspective”.
“The film features Capetonian artists such as rapper Jitsvinger, pianist Kyle Shepherd and bassist Shane Cooper as they stage a musical production, Afrikaaps, to “trace the true roots of Afrikaans to slaves in the Cape”.
These two disparate yet linked works are trying to say something similar — that Europe, for better or for worse, is part of Africa. Its dealings with Africa have not been just, but it is very much part of this landscape.
Indeed, former director general in the presidency Frank Chikane, who visited Grahamstown for the festival, said pretty much the same thing.
He was in town as part of the Think!Fest and to launch his book, Eight Days in September. He spoke about what drove the nationalists to negotiate.
One of the reasons, he said, was that Afrikaners had no other home to which they could relocate and so they had to come to a settlement with the majority.
Remnants of history
A story from Zimbabwe may help to illustrate my point. Around 2000, at the height of the farm invasions, some radical war veterans threatened to exhume the remains of Cecil John Rhodes — the founding father of the nation we now know as Zimbabwe — from Matopos, one of the most sacred sites in Zimbabwe.
To raise the bloodied flag of revolution even higher, the restive ex-combatants also talked about felling the statue of David Livingstone that stands, erect, looking over the gorge into which gallons of water plunge. Livingstone is the man who “discovered” the Victoria Falls, the geological wonder that was known to the locals, for centuries, as Mosi-oa-Tunya (the smoke that thunders).
You would have thought that the nationalists would have fanned the flames of revolution.
Whatever the reasons, surely one of them to do with tourism, the nationalists talked down the idea, snuffing out the revolutionary zeal of the fire-eating comrades.
Perhaps, despite all the grand nationalist rhetoric, there was a realisation that wiping away these representations of history was never going to clear Europe from Africa.
This might mean that it is possible to live together, and the culture on display in this old settler country is a good entry point into the frosty discussion on how this can be done.
For that to happen, the majority who cannot afford to attend the shows at the festival — in fact, festivalgoers are being made to pay for photographer Mikhael Subotzky’s exhibition walkabouts — should not be made to feel as though they are strangers in their ancestral land.