Diane de Beer asked three former Young Artist Award winners how they feel about the festival. Mike van Graan is an activist and executive director of the African Arts Institute. Lara Foot is a director and chief executive of the Baxter Theatre. Aubrey Sekhabi is artistic director of the State Theatre
What is most memorable, looking back at four decades of the National Arts Festival?
Van Graan: I don’t know much about the first 15 or so years of the festival. We boycotted it for being a symbol of hegemonic aesthetic tastes and values and because institutions subsidised by the apartheid government were integral to the programme.
It was the place I won my first theatre awards, though – in the early 1990s for The Dogs must be Crazy and Some of our Best Friends are Cultural Workers. Both were political satires.
Foot: I have been going for the past 29 years. It still is an overwhelming feeling of excitement and anticipation, of new productions and long queues as audiences wait to see theatre. And the way it has evolved with the extension of artistic disciplines and cultural emancipation… It was my stomping ground that allowed me to grow enough to run a theatre.
Sekhabi: My first experience was in 1987 when I was among six students who won a public speaking competition and were awarded a trip to attend the schools festival. This is where it all became clear to me that I must pursue the arts as a career. In 1988, I was accepted at Wits for my first year and was fortunate to take part in No Good Friday directed by Professor Ian Steadman.
We performed to full houses and the production won best of the fringe. The cast was very politically conscious. At the time you dare not make us feel you are superior because of your skin colour. During those days, we were highly sensitive about white people trying to dominate.
In the new millennium, 20 years on, is it on the right road?
Van Graan: As for where the festival is now, it had for years been viewed as an arts barometer of the socio-political conditions in the country. But I think during the last few years, it has become an incredibly safe festival, politically. Last year, looking at the work, one would never have said we had the Marikana massacre the year before or the huge controversy around Brett Murray’s The Spear.
This is not the fault of the festival – like awards, the festival reflects what artists are creating. Economics in the form of subsidies, sponsorships, the primary markets of the festival and the perception of what they want and the creative industries discourse are far more influential – unfortunately – in what artists do than “speaking truth to power”.
Foot: They’re opening doors to young artists. The main festival can at times be more vibrant but they try to keep it as classy as it should be. We have seen the integration of both artistic disciplines and cultural groups flourish. They have their finger on the pulse of new young directors. I think more funding is necessary.
Especially these past 20 years, what has struck you most?
Van Graan: The festival has become more reflective of the demographics of our country. It has lost the Afrikaans community – a major arts constituency – to the numerous Afrikaans festivals.
Foot: I think the growing of new audiences. Also being a Young Artist Award winner was a huge positive in my career. They hold and nurture these special artists.
Sekhabi: I have been going to the festival for 26 years. When we presented our own production of My Home My Prison, it was a time to claim our space and become independent. We presented it while in our second year of study. At the time, most artists and students used to gather at Settler’s Inn and huddle around the fireplace as we spoke about the works we had seen and new friends we had made.
Where can it improve and best adapt for the future?
Van Graan: It should proactively work with other festivals and venues to include much more excellent work across the language boundaries. It should encourage work that is provocative, edgy, innovative. To its credit, it has begun to do both.
It should celebrate and showcase work from the rest of Africa; most international work has been from Europe.
I understand the economics of it, but that can’t be right.
Foot: I’d love to see more international participation on the main festival, but we need more funding. We need to be in tune with what is happening internationally.
What are your personal highlights?
Foot: One of the first productions I saw was, I think, called Kwamandi and it made a huge impact. I also produced Elvis du Pisani and Mooi Street Moves, which played for many years, as well as a Wits production of Equus, which ended up selling tickets on the black market. And I was worried people wouldn’t stay for a two-hour production at a festival!
In 1997, I took six productions to Grahamstown and they all sold out.
Sekhabi: Memorable is 1998 when I presented Not with My Gun as part of my rendition for receiving the Young Artist Award. It was a joy to be part of the main festival and to be received with excitement by both white and black audiences.
I was delighted by Zenzi Mbuli’s Gumboots. Who can forget Soweto Kinch on saxophone and Sibongile Khumalo, with her Reflect, Celebrate and Live concert, which was majestic. And her gigantic performance in James Nqcobo’s Songs of Migration?
I remember Gregory Maqoma’s work, always giving contemporary dance hope. In my fresh memory is Mandla Mbothwe’s Biko Inquest.
BIGGEST IN AFRICA
The National Arts Festival is the world’s second-largest arts festival It’s the biggest annual celebration of the arts on the African continent.
It consists of a Main and Fringe programme both administered by the NAF office.
The Festival relies on sponsorship with the core sponsors being the Eastern Cape Government, Standard Bank, the National Lottery, the National Arts Council and Transnet.
The programme comprises drama, dance, physical theatre, comedy, opera, music, jazz, visual art exhibitions, film, student theatre, street theatre, lectures, a craft fair, workshops, tours and a children’s arts festival.
The inaugural fest was held in 1974 when the 1820 Settlers National Monument was officially opened.
With the exception of 1975, a festival has been organised every year since then.
The fest was a project of the Grahamstown Foundation for 28 years and in 2002 became a Section 21 Company with an independent board of directors.
A committee of experts selects the content of the Main programme.
Today, the Fringe is on an equal footing with the Main. The distinguishing feature of the Fringe is that it is open to all and exempt from the selection process that applies to the Main.
Five awards are made annually in drama, music, jazz, visual art, dance and film. – Wikipedia