/ 25 June 2022

Art imitates life at the National Arts Festival

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Koleka Putuma in ‘Hullo, Bu-bye, Koko, Come In’. Photos: Paul Botes & Nurith Wagner-Strauss

Grahamstown was renamed Makhanda at about this time in 2018. 

Lieutenant Colonel John Graham established the town named after him in 1812 and Makhanda ka Nxele was the warrior and prophet who advised Chief Ndlambe and encouraged the attack on Grahamstown in 1819. 

Minister of Arts and Culture Nathi Mthethwa said at the time the name change would help remove the painful memory attached to the battle.  

Life back in 2018, before the name change, was so different. Hosting and attending public events and festivals was much easier with no need for social distancing, mask wearing or constant temperature checks. That was the year that Beyonce and Jay Z brought their On The Run tour to Mzansi when Global Citizen was hosted at the FNB Stadium in Johannesburg. It was the year that the country grieved the loss of its mother, Winnie Mandela. Up until then no one in the world knew that two years later, the globe would lose its freedom because of the Covid-19 pandemic.  

It was no different for the town whose population is also largely made up of students. Makhanda could not host any festivals or graduation ceremonies. But all that is changing because in-person graduation ceremonies resumed this year and so is the festival’s return to the university town. 

After two years of virtual performances, the annual National Arts Festival is in its 48th year and returns with live performances since the pandemic brought normal life to a stand still. It promises to be a star studded line-up featuring performances from Ringo Madligozi, Amanda Black, Bongeziwe Mabandla and Rob Van Vuuren to name a few.

This year one of the common threads used to weave the performance’s together is how art manages to reflect life. The challenges of how black, queer and female bodies are represented in history, the hardships of carrying on with life in the midst of grief and the  emotional damage that constant rejection brings. 

How do we begin to heal? 

Well, here are three must see performances that dive deeper into the ambiguity these issues can bring. A world where we don’t just admire the art but the art begins to imitate our lived experience.  

“Thank you for taking the time to apply for this position; however we regret to inform you that your application has been unsuccessful. We thank you for your interest and wish you all the best with your future endeavours.” 

If you’ve read those words before then you’ve most probably experienced being rejected from a job or opportunity you were seeking. Art practitioner Wezile Harmans’ exhibition We Regret To Inform You tackles one of South Africa’s most pressing issues – unemployment. With current unemployment rate sitting at a dismal 34.5%, the exhibition looks into the often ignored emotional and mental trauma people face while unemployed, trying to get a job, losing a job or trying to keep their current job. 

“We Regret To Inform You” tackles one of South Africa’s most pressing issues – unemployment.

Harmans’ art display is made up of a collection of different words used in letters and emails received by people who have faced rejection in the face of job hunting. However, his focus is a lot less on the words of rejection themselves but rather on how we can overcome the trauma rejection often brings. “How do we put ourselves in a position of power or in a position of recovery, when receiving these words? So it was all about saying these things happen but how do we position ourselves in a way that will enable us to continue,” he says.

Harmans says that his goal with the exhibition is to bring people into a space that provokes them into deep thought and introspection, making room for vulnerability and giving people permission to be their authentic selves. 

“There is a huge gap between art and everyday people. I’ve always noticed that we are constantly performing our lives on an everyday basis. It’s just that we are not aware of that. I wanted to bring back reality in a way that wouldn’t create further trauma to the people that come to see the work, but rather, for them to see the work and ask themselves what their contribution is. And if they see themselves in the work, then they have further conversations right after the show or before the show,” says Harmans.

The space has been designed  to reflect an exam room, with desks that have envelopes placed on them, as well as tables and chairs where the audience will be seated. The reason behind this is “to get the audience to participate in the exhibition and for them to see that art can be used as a tool for social change and discussion” explains Harmans. 

“The audience will experience a moment in their lives where they wanted change, where they did get that change or they didn’t get that change. So we are visiting that moment in your life and we are about to find a way to move on from it”. 

He also points out that it’s important for art to not just be seen as an extra mural activity but rather as a way of sharing our experiences, something that is part of our lives and another medium to tell our stories.   

Marikana… Ten Years On 

It was the 16 August 2012 when 34 mine workers died at the hands of the South Africa Police in what is now known as the Marikana Massacre. The scene of this brutal event is Lonmin mine in the North West province, where the massacre took place as a result of a wage increase strike by some of the company’s mine workers.  

Almost ten years later and no one has been convicted for any of these deaths, the exhibition Marikana, Ten Years On: What We Lost in the Shooting seeks to provoke the audience into reflecting on the state of democracy in South Africa and what has been lost over the past ten years. 

The exhibition combines journalism and art to explore the concepts of loss, intergenerational trauma, history and memory, migrant labour and mining. 

“We hope we will reinsert what happened into the public conversation again but also reflect on how what happened affects our lives today,” says journalist Niren Tolsi. Tolsi and Mail & Guardian pictures editor and photographer Paul Botes worked together to combine images and soundbites collected throughout these 10 years. 

Koleka Putuma in ‘Hullo, Bu-bye, Koko, Come In’ (below). Photos: Paul Botes & Nurith Wagner-Strauss

This collection forms part of one of the exhibitions with the second being a display of the drawing from an art therapy project that was done by Kulumani Support Group with some of the widows of the mine workers. Zodwa Skeyi Tutani, who curated the display, says that “the exhibition of some of the widows’ art reflects what their lives have become”. She says that in the images people will be able to see what moving on means and looks like for them.

 “For South Africa what is left behind is this idea of continuous massacres, the continuous attack on black bodies, but for them it’s added to that idea of double oppression of being a woman. And then also having to be a mother and a widow and then having to be the one that carries on. Having to carry the weight of what is left behind,” says Tutani.     

The exhibition will include various discussions throughout the festival about the law, the concept of home, work and resistance.  

Koleka Putuma performs Hullo, Bu-Bye, Koko, Come In 

“For those of us whose lives are placed adjacent to or somewhere, where the microscope cannot find us, cannot locate where the story begins.” 

The words are performed by Koleka Putuma as she swirls around a spotlight in a dark room, making it difficult to see her on stage. Her play Hullo, Bu-Bye, Koko, Come In is inspired by the words found in the legendary Brenda Fassie’s 1992 hit single, iStraight Le Ndaba.  

Putuma explores the concepts of visibility and invisibility while examining how black women in the past and present are documented, seen and written about throughout history in performance. 

“How those different modes of visibility and invisibility in performance, politics and society, are curated both while the women are alive but also when they are no longer,” Putuma points out. 

She tries to disrupt the ways in which people think that the body or the black, queer body should be in performance.  What is performance and what is that space between what we are performing and what is actually real, for a person who lives in a body like hers that is both black and female. 

“The one thing I am inviting the audience to do a lot in this show is to ask them to look and to look closer and to look deeper and to integrate the ways that they have been conditioned to look and see black women,” she says.      

Her performance makes use of multimedia elements, including lighting, sound, poetry and projection mapping. It features archived clips and soundbites from various artists including Brenda Fassie, Miriam Makeba and Boom Shaka.  

“Looking at the women around us, looking at ourselves, but also in general looking at the way that our particular society treats women, treats black women specifically, and how that trickles into everything from politics, entertainment, life. Nothing is really isolated, what we see on the streets is probably what’s happening in the academic space, in the arts, we have different forms of those violences that play out,” says the poet.  

“In the images people will be able to see what moving on means and looks like”

Through her performance, Putuma stresses the importance of seeing women both in the present and in history, through the lens of humanity rather than for what they can bring.

The festival takes place from 23 June to 3 July 2022. To find out more or book your tickets to these and other shows, visit: www.nationalartsfestival.co.za.