Every year, the best in South African arts and culture descends on the Eastern Cape town of Grahamstown for the National Arts Festival. The 2016 instalment of the festival marks 43 years of celebrating creativity and experimentation in the arts and, yet again, indicates the direction of the arts in the country.
With hundreds of works and experiences on offer over the 11 days, the following is a roundup of some of the top performances in each category at this year’s festival.
The Inconvenience of Wings
As this year’s featured artist, director Lara Foot presents the world premiere of her latest work, The Inconvenience of Wings. The play, described by Foot as more personal than others she has written, deals with themes of friendship, dysfunction and addiction. Based on Abraham J Twerski’s book Addictive Thinking and featuring Andrew Buckland, Mncedisi Shabangu and Jennifer Steyn, the production was further inspired by Foot’s decade-long experience with her father’s dementia.
As Ever, Bessie
Screen and stage veteran Denise Newman takes on the role of author Bessie Head. Born in the Pietermaritzburg Mental Hospital because her father was black and her white mother was judged insane, Head is considered one of Botswana’s most influential authors – she spent the last 22 years of her life in exile there. By Head’s own account, her life was made up of “shattered little pieces” – the child of a mixed-race couple in apartheid South Africa, she later become a Pan-Africanist activist. Directed by Bobbie Fitchen, Newman unpacks the “demons and scars” that fuelled Head’s incredible writing.
Directors Roel Twijnstra and Jerry Pooe bring the story of political tensions in post-civil war Mozambique to life in the South African premiere of Sleepwalkingland. With tensions between rival political parties bubbling over, two men meet at a refugee camp and flee – their journey reflective of the effect that war has on those who are displaced, killed, tortured and dehumanised without even picking up a weapon. The performance features Dadivo José Combane, Bhekani Shabalala and Nkanyiso Shezi.
Noka ya Bokamoso – Lerato Shadi
With a focus on the relationship between the artist and her role as a South African black woman, Noka ya Bokamoso hopes to encourage dialogue to reimagine South Africa’s future. It looks at the juxtaposition between past and present as her influences, alongside the politics of transformation – asking how it is possible to forge new futures when issues of historical representation remain unresolved. Berlinbased Lerato Shadi’s work explores the black female body and how it is made both visible and invisible. The exhibition is curated by Mahikeng-based curator Joan Legalamitlwa.
Lefa la Ntate – Mohau Modisakeng
Using his body to explore South Africa’s violent history, Mohau Modisakeng looks at how it influences the way we establish political and social roles. He does so through film, large-scale photographic prints, installations and performances. Modisakeng’s work “responds to the history of the black body within the (South) African context”. Rather than direct representations and depictions of violence, Modisakeng instead transforms the body into a “marker of collective memory”. The Johannesburg-born artist is this year’s Standard Bank Young Artist of the Year and this year will continue his master’s degree in fine art at Columbia University in New York City.
Somnyama Ngonyama – Zanele Muholi
With a career dedicated to documenting the lives and experiences of members of the black LGBTI community in South Africa, Somnyama Ngonyama (Hail, the Dark Lioness) brings something different from photographer Zanele Muholi. Comprising of a series of self-portraits shot in black-and-white on her travels through South Africa, the United States and Europe, her exhibition deals with the “politics of race and pigment in the photographic archive” and touches on events in South Africa’s political history. Somnyama Ngonyama has a strong fashion and portraiture photography influence with Muholi representing herself as different personas in various outfits. Curated by Lerato Bereng, the exhibition also features work from Muholi’s ongoing photographic essay, Brave Beauties.
Pig Headed – Gavin Krastin
Award-winning performance artists Gavin Krastin draws on current political landscapes with relation to power dynamics. The work is inspired by the speaking severed pig head in Lord of the Flies. Serving as both a window and a mirror, the pig head is a symbol of the state and of the self and is the platform for themes of censorship, oppression, the corrupt state and the apathetic citizen. Krastin uses his work to question the prevailing social systems around him.
Known as South Africa’s Tracy Chapman, independent singer-songwriter Asanda “Msaki” Mvana brings her vocal talent to this year’s festival with her debut album Zaneliza: How The Water Moves. It received critical acclaim and powerfully addresses themes of loss and hope. With both solo performances and as part of Msaki & the Golden Circle Tribe, her shows promise to be an eclectic mix of talented musicians.
Vocalist and trombonist Siya Makuzeni is this year’s Standard Bank Young Artist of the Year for jazz and lists Marcus Wyatt, Feya Faku and Sibongile Khumalo as some of her teachers. The founder of the Ippyfüz project, Makuzeni is an experimental musician who has been known to use electronics to enhance and manipulate her voice. With performances at most South African music festivals, the dynamic performer will be taking to the stage in two different acts – as the lead of an ensemble of young musicians and in standard jazz quartet format.
The Very Big Comedy Show
Comedian Rob van Vuuren is a familiar face in comedic circles – from film to stage – and is a regular at the National Arts Festival. The winner of Standard Bank Ovation Awards will again bring together a selection of the country’s veterans in comedy alongside names to watch in The Very Big Comedy Show. Hosting the show, Van Vuuren will share the stage with Alan Committie and Marc Lottering, as well as acts such as Dalin Oliver and Thenx. Oliver, a regular on the Cape Town comedy scene, has sold out shows at the Baxter and last year’s National Arts Festival. The former teacher brings his I Came, I Taught, I Left to Grahamstown for one last run on this year’s Fringe Festival. Allwoman sketch comedy group Thenx, featuring Kitty Moepang, Tumy Motsoatsoe, Momo Matsunyane and Zethu Dlomo, presents Aza-nya is Five-to. The group uses satire and parody to capture everyday life in South Africa.
The National Arts Festival runs from June 30 to July 10 in Grahamstown. For more information and programme details, visit nationalartsfestival.co.za