Low-brow stuff gives National Arts Festival its edge

It’s something of a shock arriving in Grahamstown at festival time — a town with a strange collision of styles made stranger by the odd assortment of people gathered for a diverse selection of 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 driving from Cape Town in my best friend’s new car.

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 from the old South Africa — provincial administration block, church or school hall, courthouse, a sports centre …

The traveller arriving at its door is saved by three things: the pleasant view of Grahamstown from the ridge, and an interior architectural feature that 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 passers-by into attending their shows at the daily “sundowner” gathering.

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 monument building and the attitudes towards it of local black tour guides and the building’s caretakers were 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.

Edgy works
So in the moment when this collection could most impress it is, unavoidably, at its most unimpressive. Likewise with the actual gallery spaces in the monument: the main exhibition hall where Standard Bank Young Artist award-winner Mary Sibande is showing her life-size mannequins is dowdy and in a delapidated state.

In an absurd twist it is the very ­gallery space itself that wholly undermines the work that the sponsor has so heavily invested in.

Back to the monument art collection that also contains a horrible self-portrait by 2004 Young Artist award-winner Kathryn Smith ­(staring dolefully out of a large Victorian-style oval frame, wearing a pink satin nightie), it also contains two examples of the edgy works of Trevor Makhoba (who has painted work about youth, servitude and sexuality, as well as traditional circumcision) and Brett Murray.

Both are past Standard Bank Young Artist award-winners. Murray’s sculptural rendering of an old comic book illustration has two aging white blokes chatting, the one asking the other: “What parts of you are from Africa?”

The work gestures towards the controversy Murray caused in 2012, when he exhibited The Spear. The suggestion, in the satire, is that there are certain body parts identified with an African physiognomy, in this instance well hidden, but among men they may be discussed.

Like The Spear, it’s premised on vulgarity and the viewer’s discomfort is intended.

In the monument Makhoba’s and Murray’s works are well hidden behind a pillar on the second floor where, sadly, they will be seen by a minimum of festival-goers. 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 at the Think Fest, a talkshop about culture and current affairs, City Press hosted a session about Murray’s work that incited such great wrath a year ago.

Sculptor Andries Botha was in conversation with senior arts reporter Charl Blignaut, who pointed out that the present involves “some new and fascinating forms of censorship”.

Two artworks came under scrutiny: Murray’s Spear and Botha’s life-size Three Elephants sculpture commissioned by the eThekwini municipality for R1.5-million.

The completion of the latter was halted in 2010 and the work was removed from public exhibition at the Warwick Triangle viaduct after important ANC members objected, having perceived the work to be a representation of the logo of the Inkatha Freedom Party.

Botha, who has instituted legal proceedings against the eThekwini municipality, 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 populist 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,” said Blignaut.

Art’s unimportance
Botha spoke with skepticism about “Rainbowism”, saying that the ­“Constitution is a massive act of hypnotism, an extraordinary document of vision and hope.But people don’t get the Constitution. And The Spear, The Elephants and the work of Zanele Muholi all seem to expose the fault line ­massively.”

Botha’s final appeal was for artists “to make the decision to defend what is important.”

Earlier in the day the Standard Bank Young Artist award-winner for performance art, Anthea Moys, had demonstrated art’s unimportance when she performed alongside the local South African battle re-enactments society.

Playing bagpipes and representing Scottish rebels, she marched against “The English” at the battles of Prestonpans and Culloden — this amounted to a small line of riflemen with muskets and a genuine period cannon.

Outside a cardboard tavern stood a character called Jackie — a “normal wench”, as she described herself.  

Moys’s comedic work, deftly narrated by roving master of ceremonies Gerard Bester, extended the limits of authenticity.

It questioned the manner in which people remember and ritualise the historical, and it left one wondering whether anyone visiting the monument, built on holy ground, still feels at all attached to the original 1820 Settler narrative.

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

The play is intended to be a journey of personal revelation, of rediscovery by the aging Ngema as he goes back to his childhood to experience once again the fireside tales of his great-grandmother, Mkutshana, who died in 1972.

Almost blind, the matriarch forever picked at an ancient skin coat she wore, infested with lice.

Sadly, Ngema did a one-dimensional rendition of an old lady and then sailed into the epic form with its sweeping, biblical quality, and with its all-too-familiar kings, queens and villains.

With shaky, unsure delivery — topless, and with a heavily oiled, out-of-shape paunch — without nuance he related the standard Shaka, Dingaan and Cetshwayo shtick that could have come straight out of Wikipedia.

The personal narrative culminated in the story of the Ngema clan’s role at the Battle of Isandlwana. There was a bit of blood and guts, but the bar was set so low that there was no hope of a satisfying climax.

It lacked a real element, even ­ritualised, of the personal. But one didn’t expect that Ngema would come to Grahamstown to share in any vulnerability.

That has been left to lesser mortals, as it usually is. One need not look far to see that there is a new world coming (as Nina Simone once sang), and it’s going to the theatre.

Many professionals here in Grahamstown are giggling under their breaths about it. It’s brash, peculiar and strange. It’s black and poor but, thank heavens, it doesn’t go as consciousness-raising community theatre either.

It’s a kind of Nollywood-meets-Hollyveld concept and if commercial theatre managements key into the soft porn, soap opera aspects of it, it may bear fruit.

Excuse for a hoot
The most prominent is titled Money Maker. It is directed by Julian Seleke Mokoto and is raking in the audiences for its second year in a row.

Set in an urban brothel, with girls of every size and hue and a transvestite to boot, it pretends to educate its audiences about prostitutes, johns and pimps. But, really, it’s a spectacular excuse for a hoot. On the night I attended the audience was black, loaded and deeply immersed.

Others of this ilk include two productions from Ntshieng Mokgoro of Newcastle: Zion (“Zion’s lost her mother and her father raped her repeatedly day in, day out”) and A Conversation with a Snake (“Ancient Motsengwa Lerato is a world ruled by Queen Mankuku. But the people have started questioning their beliefs”).

Then there’s Lupho Ngetu’s Lunatic Asylum (“a celebration of our madness!”), Mncube Productions’s Weeping Candle (“Every wrong deed is someone’s life destroyed”), Zalisile Marwanqana’s Believe He Is Alive (“Our community believes in witchcraft”) and the Achievers Theatre Company’s Sego-Saka — My Calabash (“A man wants to take a second wife but doesn’t follow the correct procedures”).

It’s this low-brow content that is beginning to grip the attention of more sophisticated black directors and, in the case of the seasoned and internationally travelled Paul Grootboom, at least, in his work titled Rhetorical there is an effort to make political satire with a truly popular, African theatre edge.

The abundance of this low-brow stuff on the festival fringe stands in stark contrast to what I had become used to seeing when I was a regular at the festival some years ago. Indeed, there are times when an absence allows one to see afresh.

Yet although the artistic physical performance is still there, and the dancing girls are still rehashing Broadway hits, it is the urban African melodrama that will arrive and stay, probably until long after we’re gone.

Strolling through Grahamstown in the winter chill one becomes aware of the problematic social strata all over again, and how this festival has to be all things to all people attending or working it. It’s an almost impossible brief and one can only sympathise with the folks who make it.

On Grahamstown’s street corners there is an abundance of foreigners, but these are not tourists. Rather, they are African outsiders following the buck, flogging, well, whatever.

As I turned to step into the Albany History Museum, I heard someone yell: “Hey, I know you from Parkview!”

It was a charming nut seller called Richard who wanders along Tyrone Avenue in the Johannesburg suburb selling bags of nuts he sources from Mpumalanga. I’ve purchased his nuts but I’ve never stopped to wonder who he is. And this week he is selling in Grahamstown.

In the course of our conversation, I found this out: he is a Zimbabwean who is attending the National Arts Festival for the eighth time this year, and each year he hitches from Johannesburg to Grahamstown.

At Grahamstown, this year, Richard is selling three products. The first is packets of pecan nuts at R25 for 150g. The second is a huge bunch of wire-and-bead lavender flowers. And the third is a stack of 80 paintings of Zimbabwean rural life, painted by him, each about the size of a shoe box.

It took Richard four lifts on the backs of trucks and he arrived in Grahamstown last week.

Along with the other traders on his corner he sleeps next to his stock and in the morning they use a bucket behind a wall, where there is a tap, to wash.

Richard says he is grateful that the weather is warm but, financially, he is having the worst year out of eight.

The National Arts Festival ends on July 7

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Matthew Krouse
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