Eastern Cape's Umtiza Arts Festival’ growing beautifully progressively

The Umtiza Arts Festival is on until Sunday in East London. SUPPLIED

The Umtiza Arts Festival is on until Sunday in East London. SUPPLIED

Published Jun 6, 2024


The last last time I wrote about the Eastern Cape province in this publication, things went south very fast; with complaints from as far as Graaff-Reinet to as near as Constantia.

I trust this next piece redeems me, as my most recent visit revealed a glimmer of hope.

First, I love the Eastern Cape. This love was further reignited by the ongoing Umtiza Arts Festival that is on until this Sunday in East London. What was meant to be a quick in-and-out trip to cast my vote last week, culminated in me spending the entire weekend in East London.

Named after the spiny Eastern Cape tree with prominent glossy dark green foliage, the festival is now in its ninth year since inception. It started out as a joint effort between the East London Guild Theatre board and staff, the East London Museum and the Ann Bryant Art Gallery.

“What started as a three-day festival went on to become a 10-day festival and this year we are pushing 16 days,” said the festival’s director, Papama Mnqandi.

“This disruptive multi-day event approach is to ensure diversity in our programming and model the festival as something all citizens of the Eastern Cape can take ownership of. Umtiza reflects our diversity, culturally, socially, economically and otherwise.

“We kicked off on a high note with maskandi duo Qadasi and Maqhinga, followed by comedy duo Jason Goliath and Tats Nkonzo, who were able to fill the Guild Theatre to capacity on the second night. Our attendance numbers have been great, be it the orchestral performances or the museum talks and exhibitions or Art-in-the-Park. People really showed up,” added Mnqandi.

After casting my vote in the now run-down suburb of Dawn, I received a call from a childhood friend inviting me to Barry Hilton’s show at the Guild Theatre that evening.

“How old is Barry?” I asked, as I reluctantly agreed to join them.

It was at the Guild Theatre that I realised Barry Hilton’s performance was part of a bigger programme that falls under the Umtiza Arts Festival.

Barry, my china! You are still funny. Although Sir David Attenborough might vehemently disagree. Having enjoyed my first show, I picked up the programme to see what else I could squeeze in during my short visit to East London.

The second item that caught my eye was a film called Ukuthwala, produced by Mount Frere-born Chwayita Mdzinwa, 36. I found the title a bit misleading as the film was actually a broader documentary on the amaMpondo of the Eastern Cape – from Libode to Flagstaff and all the areas in between – and not limited to the advent of arranged marriages, also known as ukuthwala.

Beyond learning more about the customs of amaMpondo, I was also intrigued to learn that the term “iindlavini” is not in actual fact derogatory but rather refers to a group of young educated amaMpondo men who chose to remain true to their cultural roots.

A number of myths were busted in this film. I am hoping that Ukuthwala will be available widely under the auspices of the Eastern Cape Provincial Arts and Culture Council, which provides financial support to locally-produced films in the province.

A total of 10 films are interspersed throughout this ongoing festival’s programme and include films on the rise of the Nguni nation, the uhadi instrument, pride and bhutiza (brotherhood).

The next item on my agenda was the Art Cheese and Wine talk by Barry Gibb, centred on Norman Catherine at the Ann Bryant Art Gallery.

Look, I understand that part of the terms of the gallery’s bequeathment say it must remain as is. For eternity. But heck, a fancy futurist glass wall on Oxford Street wouldn’t hurt, maybe cut down a few trees and make way for a new modernist white cube space somewhere on that sprawling lawn. Bring contemporary to East London.

Be that as it may, I was pleasantly surprised to learn that the artist Norman Catherine was born in East London. I have come across his garden sculpture at the Everard Read Gallery here in Cape Town and even come across some of his work at UCT’s Michaelis School of Fine Art.

But never had I imagined that someone I consider to be one of the country’s leading surrealist artists was actually from Slummies. Barry Gibb gave a comprehensive history of Catherine’s work, upbringing, schooling and the politics of being white during apartheid and keeping quiet to ensure that one does not lose one’s day job. I really enjoyed this talk. And of course, the wine.

From there it was off to Legends Showcase Venue in Berea. This used to be a car dealership if I am not mistaken, but 10 years ago it was transformed into a music school, events venue and jazz hangout spot. On Thursday and throughout the weekend Legends was buzzing with the likes of Selaelo Selota, iPhupho L’ka Biko’s Tumi Pheko, Vuyo Mjindi, Lex Futshane, Buffalo City Metropolitan Orchestra’s Anthony Drake, 82-year old jazz legend Retsi Pule and even Port Elizabeth’s legendary nonagenarian reverend and saxophonist, Patrick Pasha.

One could easily find oneself clocking up to five events in one day at this festival. And the highlight was always the evening performances at the Guild Theatre. For example, this past Saturday was closed by Sakhile Simani and the Buffalo City Big Band alongside Selaelo Selota.

The Bala family also performed a musical on the Sunday afternoon and this Sunday will be spiritually closed by Dumi Mkokstad and Putuma Tiso.

Azola Ntlantsana from the National Arts Council’s Eastern Cape help desk, said: “This festival gives us hope in the province, because one finds that Eastern Cape creatives aren’t generally exposed to such an array of platforms and diverse audiences.

Umtiza is now something to look forward to on the annual national arts calendar and we hope to see abakhaya coming back in droves to be a part of this annually.”

As the National Arts Festival in Makhanda looms large from June 20, the Umtiza Arts Festival has already set the tone.

Another childhood friend, Wam Sekeleni, even went as far as asking “What the hell is going on in East London? Has the festive season come early!?” No Wamish, it was the Umtiza tree flexing its branches just outside the East London museum where it was first planted in 1960.

It is high time we had a festival of this calibre at the heart of the city’s cultural precinct, surrounded by Selborne, Clarendon and the Buffalo City TVET College. I look forward to properly attending this festival next year.

Cape Times

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