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It’s been a heady few weeks with South African young artists making their mark magnificently and reminding those of us who follow their careers and enjoy their artistry just how blessed we are.
It’s an easy passion to indulge at the time that the National Arts Festival’s annual Young Artist Awards are announced, for the past 30 years sponsored brilliantly by Standard Bank. It’s one of the best events for arts journalists to write about simply because it covers a whole range of genres, the individuals involved are still forming their careers but have achieved something extraordinary already, and it is wonderfully inspiring to learn about these gifted young individuals who are still working towards their best.
What makes South Africa so special is that artists often emerge from circumstances that are tough and yet that’s not the thing they dwell on at all when talking about their work and sometimes their accomplishments.
During a Skype interview last week with Pretty Yende to promote her two performances in this country next month, she explained that she only understood what opera was when she was 16.
Now, a mere 12 years later, she is one of the hottest rising stars in the world of opera. Same thing for the Young Artist Award winner for opera, Njabulo Madlala, whose grandmother, a domestic worker, brought home opera tapes that her employer had thrown out, and this was how he discovered something that he hopes will turn him into a superstar in that rarefied world.
And he will.
Two young artists from Motherwell in Port Elizabeth, Simphiwe Kaya (director) and actor Mfundo Zono, who were presenting the latest Zwakala Festival-winning production, The Journey, at The Market earlier this year, explained their day to me. During the rehearsal period, Zono was getting up every day at 3am to start preparations for his daily keep and the food to feed them – by baking muffins. These would be packaged and then sold at a taxi stop, where he would also entertain the passers-by to attract their attention.
They weren’t complaining about their circumstances. They weren’t even thinking about that. Their reward was that their work was being seen.
“It’s important to take our issues and to put flowers on them,” said Zono. How can artists like these not change lives?
It is the graciousness of our young artists that blows your socks off. In all the speeches by the Young Artist Award Winners last week, each one of them referred back to their mentors, their family and friends whose support was invaluable. In a landscape where it is minimal, thanking Standard Bank for their financial encouragement all these years was not out of place.
It came from people who live with the reality of how tough it is for artists who are constantly struggling to get their work seen.
And even though their struggle must be intense, what stands out when speaking to them is their determination to make it against all odds. They don’t have an option, it’s a passion and a calling. In the past it was other young artists like Winston Tshona, John Kani, Athol Fugard and others who were determined to get the stories of horror heard and seen. There are many examples of how big their impact was both inside and outside of the country.
These young voices, in a time when there is so much unemployment, especially among the youth, when people are sometimes overwhelmed by the effects of corruption and the lack of support for the arts, with many dance and theatre companies having to close, are immeasurably profound.
They make South Africa proud and are certainly my beacon every day as I listen to their stories and watch their extraordinary artistry which interrogates, investigates and celebrates life and all it brings – both hope and sadness.
And if we can reach just across the border, there’s another young voice shouting from the rooftops – that of the exquisitely named NoViolet Bulawayo. Her book We Need New Names was among the hopefuls for the 2013 Booker Prize, which she sadly didn’t win, but the accomplishment is astonishing.
She might be crying for her country and weeping for her people while she tears through your heart and soul like a tsunami, but she’s sharing her heartache with her people and the world in a way that hints at healing and gives a voice to those who felt unheard.
How can we not be joyous about this brave new generation who want to grow their artistry in a way that benefits everyone around them – and do it with such grace and awareness.
They make me smile every day. I feel honoured to share their stories.