KKNK: An Englishman in Oudshoorn

Street party: An enthusiastic welcome for performers during the Klein Karoo Nasionale Kunstefees in Oudshoorn. (Hans van der Veen)

Street party: An enthusiastic welcome for performers during the Klein Karoo Nasionale Kunstefees in Oudshoorn. (Hans van der Veen)

Absa is the sponsor of the KKNK, and part of the Barclays Group. Much has been made of Barclays’ reasons for pulling out of Africa. Maria Ramos, the chief executive of Barclays Africa Group, assures us that there’s no reason to panic.

A month ago Clover stopped sponsoring Aardklop, the other big Afrikaans arts festival, which is now “finish and klaar”.

So I’m raising an eyebrow in consideration of the KKNK’s endangered species status were Absa to no longer bankroll it, and get chatting over free frikkadels to a guy called Neil Jonker.

Me: Why are you here, and what do you think of KKNK?

Neil: Well, I’m a visual artist, and Oudtshoorn is my hometown.
I’m here tonight to tell people about my exhibition, which isn’t even here – it’s further down the road. KKNK has matured into a stale old stinky shirt, which is what I have got on. I mean I didn’t even change my shirt for the opening. It’s like ... so … here we all are, again.

When I returned to Oudtshoorn after art school, I was excited to have an arts festival on my doorstep. I was ‘rainbow nation’ naive, hoping for a forum for diversity in Southern Africa.

But I was immediately deflated with the heavy Afrikaans tone that it took. The Little Karoo that I grew up in was a bilingual place.

But I realised that the whole country (and the whole world) is going tribal, and that this is a part of that.

Me: Will KKNK survive?

Neil: A festival like this will never die as Absa has lank Afrikaans-speaking clients here with loads of money. There’s a lot of big boys here, schmoozing. Ton Vosloo is always here, and he started Naspers. There are a couple of billionaires attached to the language.

As for the Afrikaans culture on display here, I think KKNK has become mediocre for what it can be for its Afrikaans target market. And it will continue to struggle with its identity for as long as it calls itself a “national” festival.

Me: What do you dig about being here?

Neil: Well, everyone enjoys an opportunity to discuss our culture.

Me: Well, I think ...

Neil: Sorry, excuse me for a minute … Hi Paul, great snacks!

Neil hits up a conversation with Paul Bayliss, Absa’s visual arts curator, for some schmooze time.

Paul: Well, I hope you enjoyed the art more than the food.

Neil’s clumsy silence is thunderous, so I interject.

Me: Hi. Where does the art end up?

Paul: The Absa exhibit will go back up to Jo’burg. We don’t own all of this art, so some of it travels.

Me: Does Absa own a lot of art?

Paul: We’re in the top 10 corporate art collections globally. We own more than 18?000 pieces of art.

Me: And where does that art live?

Paul: Across all our buildings. Over 800 of them.

Me: In Absa banks? So that people can see them when they’re standing in a bank queue?

Paul: No. More in our corporate suites and private offices.

Me: And do the Absa bankers necessarily resonate with the art?

Paul: Some do, some don’t. Why are you asking me all this?

Me: I’m a journalist, writing an article.

Paul: You need to separate what we own as a corporate collection, and what we exhibit. Absa runs the L’Atelier art competition that’s been running for 31 years, which gives emerging artists the chance to build their brand and get a foothold in the industry.

Me: Is there a healthy demographic in your collection?

Paul: Yadda yadda, corporate speak, fish paste …

Maybe it’s the friggin’ delicious frikkadels we have all been chowing, but I’m noticing that his breath actually pongs of fish paste. Either way, I’m grateful for his silence, which speaks volumes, when I quiz him about Aardklop and the Barclays thing, and he then refers me to the relevant public relations departments.

I then parlay with another Neil –Neil Nieuwoudt, a curator here from the Dead Bunny Society in Jo’burg.

Me: Is this a national festival?

Neil: It’s not a national festival, no. It’s for Afrikaans people really.

Me: For, or about?

Neil: Maybe about.

Me: What are your expectations this year?

Neil: A lot of drinking and rowdiness.

Me: What relevance does Afrikaans still have?

Neil: Jesus, dude, it’s a beautiful language. As a culture, I guess any culture has fucked-up elements in it. I don’t believe in patriotism in any form, but it is nice to come to a place that speaks your own language.

I don’t speak the language. Maybe I am just an Englishman in Oudtshoorn, but I also find the art on display kak expensive, bang average, white Afrikaans, and navel gazing in its nature. That is, except for Lehlogonolo Mashaba’s Anatomic, which is the Absaloot business. I slip out of the exhibition, ironically housed above a Mr Price store.

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