Bad work is grist for the conversational mill at the National Arts Festival in Grahamstown. Of particular interest is whether the Standard Bank Award winners have risen to the occasion or have produced work that falls short.
The intense scrutiny of the work that the recipients in each category – theatre, visual art, performance art, film, dance, music and jazz – is inevitable, given the winners are touted as veritable shiny pearls among the flotsam of creativity that washes up in Grahamstown each year.
They star in heavily marketed campaigns both prior to and during the festival, which is part of the advantage of winning, but it does mean that expectations are high and the fall from the lofty pedestal can be hard and swift.
As is the case each year, last year’s winners Greg Homann (theatre), Jamil XT Qubeka (film), Nicola Elliott (dance), Kyle Shepard (jazz), Husain and Hasan Essop (visual art), Donna Kukama (performance art) and Njabulo Madlala (music), were each given a large budget. The amount has never been disclosed and presumably differs for each category. The money is at their disposal to create a new work to debut at this annual festival.
Few established artists are fortunate enough to have this kind of funding, so the thinking is that these young recipients – who must be under the age of 35 – are given the wings to fly. Unfortunately, this doesn’t always happen.
Bailey Snyman, a winner in the dance category, delivered a trite and didactic work in 2012 called Moffie. Princess Zinzi Mhlongo didn’t fare much better in that year with Trapped, a crude theatre work that proved she is a far better director than playwright.
This year, Homann’s Oedipus @ Koö-nú! was the show everyone was talking about – for the wrong reasons. Homann’s postmodern adaptation of this classic Greek tragedy by Sophocles, imbued with some overt political references to Madiba’s death and his legacy of wisdom, fell flat despite a fantastic performance by Tumi Morake.
The real test, as for any theatre production at a festival, will be whether this work secures any performance dates.
Some previous winners, such as Neil Coppen, who also won in the theatre category in 2011, refined his play after the festival and it enjoyed a good run at the Market Theatre.
With the 30th anniversary of the Standard Bank Young Artist Award tying in with the festival’s 40th, it is being celebrated at the festival with previous winners, such as William Kentridge and Sylvaine Strike, showing some of their seminal pieces, and the Goodman Gallery presenting an exhibition of works by artists from their stable who have taken the honour.
The distinguished list of previous winners does seem to suggest that most do rise to the occasion, even if their award-winning shows don’t quite meet expectations.