National Arts Festival 2013: A collision of people and culture

A street parade at the National Arts Festival. (Supplied)

A street parade at the National Arts Festival. (Supplied)

It's a town with a strange collision of styles made stranger by the odd assortment of people gathered for what will probably turn out to be a collision of diverse cultural acts.

The cubic, face brick brutalism of the 1820 Settlers National Monument, opened in 1974, perched on Gunfire Hill outside the town, leaves one as cold as it did the day one first set eyes on it. (In my case that was in 1979 during a school holiday. Traveling up the Garden Route from Cape Town in my best friend’s new car, we headed inland at Port Elizabeth.) 

Architect Jock Sturrock’s dreary piece of commemorative architecture was apparently inspired by the buildings of the great Louis Kahn.
But it looks like it could be anything - anything official from the old South Africa that is - church or school hall, courthouse, sports pavilion.

The traveler arriving at its door is saved by three things: the pleasant view of Grahamstown from the ridge, and an interior architectural feature which is a kind of wooden scaffolding supporting an important series of painted woodcuts by the late Cecil Skotnes. These are devoted to the arrival of the British, with their liberal values, in this neck of the woods. This feature is built around a small fountain that is covered at festival time so that it can be used as a preview platform where artists bringing work to the festival can “tease” passersby into attending their shows.

The second afternoon of the festival, June 29, was devoted in part to an amateur ballet company from some conservative part of the country. Young girls in white flowing ballet costumes gavotted mournfully while holding aloft fake wooden violins under their chins. A romantic Afrikaans ballad was pumped out at deafening volume for the audience that milled about.  

The dynamic of the building and the attitudes to it of local black tour guides, and the building’s caretakers, was explored by Standard Bank Young Artist Award winner Mikhael Subotzky in his commissioned work for the festival last year in a film titled Moses and Griffiths. Subotzky is an important emerging talent and his attention to the building is just one more creative act attesting to its centrality in the region’s recent history. 

Hundreds of thousands of art lovers, and thousands of artists, have passed through this building over the past four decades, and its importance as a site of exploration and expression remains regardless of its unsurprising features. 

The third thing that may surprise visitors to the monument is the vast collection of art on its interior walls. It’s more of an evolution of acquisitions by the monument through its association with the festival and Standard Bank than a carefully collected and curated show. But it seems to grow each year. Sadly though, at festival time the collection is rendered almost invisible because of the abundance of tacky posters and flyers stuck to the walls in order to lure festival goers.

So in the moment when this collection could most impress, it is at its most unimpressive.

While the collection contains a horrible self-portrait by past Young Artist Award winner Kathryn Smith (staring dolefully out of a large Victorian oval frame, wearing a pink satin nightie), it also contains two superb examples of the edgy works of Trevor Makhoba (who paints works about youth and sexuality) and Brett Murray. Murray’s sculptural rendering of a comic book illustration has two white blokes chatting, the one asking the other, “So, what other parts of you come from Africa?”

The work gestures towards, and includes the theme of the work by Murray that found its way into history in 2011 – namely, The Spear.

Ongoing debate
In the monument Makhoba’s and Murray’s works are well hidden behind a pillar, on the fourth floor where they will be seen by a minimum of festival goers. But, nevertheless an ongoing debate seems to rage about the nature of Murray’s creative rhetoric and its repercussions for local creativity.

Nearby on Rhodes campus, on the second night of the festival, City Press hosted a talk at the Think!Fest about Murray’s work that had incited such great wrath but a year ago. Sculptor Andries Botha and senior art reporter Charl Blignaut spoke about the differences and similarities that pertain to the display of two artworks: Murray’s Spear and Botha’s life size family of elephants for the Ethekwini municipality. The latter was removed after ANC objections that its depiction was a supposed representation of the logo of the Inkatha Freedom Party.

In the panel discussion Botha said he was accused of “deliberately distorting a brief given to him by the city of Durban to embarrass the ANC”.

“I do believe something is happening in the popularist discourse,” said Botha. In response, Blignaut lamented the loss of official funding policies aimed at urban art production. “They will fund nation building [as] art as they move art funding out of the urban setting to development,” Blignaut said in response.

Botha spoke with skepticism about “Rainbow-ism”, saying that the “Constitution is a massive act of hypnotism, an extraordinary document of vision and hope.

“But people don’t get the Constituiton and The Spear, the elephants and the work of Zanele Muholi all seem to expose the fault line massively,” he lamented.

Botha appealed to artists “to make the decision to defend what is important.”

The limits of authenticity
Earlier in the day the Standard Bank Young Artist Award winner for performance art, Anthea Moys had demonstrated art’s unimportance when she had performed alongside the local South African Battle Re-Enactments Society (SABRE). Playing bagpipes and representing Scottish rebels, she marched against a small line of riflemen and a genuine, period cannon.   

Her delightful work questioned the limits of authenticity, the manner in which people remember the historical and the manner in which white historical attachment to Europe is expressed.

A couple of hours later, in the Rhodes University Theatre, veteran play maker Mbongeni Ngema told the epic story  story of the Zulu nation in his two hander unsurprisingly titled The Zulu.

The tale culminates in the story of Ngema clan, and we learn how Mbongeni’s great grandfather fought at the battle of Isandlwana. What was intended to be the ultimate voyage of self-discovery turned into a minor act of storytelling, with lapses in memory and shaky delivery.

Ngema’s production relates a story steeped in unfortunate stereotypes, one void of nuance.

The festival has taken off to a shaky start - the chilly streets are full of revelers although the big numbers do not appear to have arrived, yet.

One could make a bald claim that the programme is sparsely scattered, with few gems. But there is an abundance of whacky-looking community theatre dealing with the kind of subject matter one reads about The Sun newspaper on a daily basis. Witches, adulterers, preachers and ghosts all put in an appearance. Perhaps this low brow content, the stuff that makes up the popular arts in other parts of Africa, is the future. Perhaps this is where the hunt for the real begins and ends.

Would that, finally, mean the end of physical theatre? Could it be that good, one wonders?

Matthew Krouse

Matthew Krouse

Matthew Krouse is the arts editor of the Mail & Guardian, a position he has held since 1999. He has edited two anthologies: Positions (Steidl, Jacana Media 2010) about artists engaging with politics in South Africa today, and The Invisible Ghetto (GMP, 1994) a compilation of creative writing about gender. His essays have appeared in collected works about arts and culture here and abroad. He has worked in the theatre for over a decade as an actor, writer and senior publicist at the Market Theatre. Read more from Matthew Krouse

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