HUMBLE: Athol Fugard is the first African to win a global arts prize awarded annually by the Japan Arts Association

SOUTH African playwright Athol Fugard is the first African to win the Praemium Imperiale, a global arts prize awarded annually by the Japan Arts Association.

Instituted in 1989, the Praemium Imperiale recognises artists for their achievement and impact on the international arts, in fields not acknowledged by the Nobel prizes.

Fugard was notified earlier this year that he was being considered by the nomination panel in the film/theatre category, although he did not think he stood much of a chance until recently. “We knew for a little bit of time now that it was okay, that I would be eating sushi in Tokyo at some point. Now I have to go and buy a black suit,” said Fugard, who is on stage in Cape Town in his latest play, Shadow of the Hummingbird.

On Wednesday the names of the five new Praemium Imperiale Laureates were announced in Paris, Rome, Berlin, London, New York and Tokyo. Each laureate is awarded an honourarium of 15 million yen (about R1.57m), a diploma and medal presented by the honorary patron of the Japan Art Association, Prince Hitachi (younger brother of Japanese Emperor Akihito) in an awards ceremony in Tokyo on October 15.

“The really good news is not that I got this award, but that another laureate, composer Arvo Pärt, is someone whose music I absolutely love,” Fugard told the Cape Argus on Wednedsay.

The 82-year-old is excited about meeting his music hero.

“The whole gang of us will go over,” said Fugard about his fellow prize recipients who include Estonian musician Pärt, French painter Martial Raysse, Italian sculpture Guiseppe Penone and American architect Steven Holl.

Last year American film-maker Francis Ford Coppola was honoured in the film/theatre category and previous winners include Arthur Miller (2001) and Stephen Sondheim (2000). “It’s really intimidating, I must say. For more than 50 years now, I just thought in terms of writing plays for my fellow South Africans,” said Fugard. “I have been lucky in that my plays have found audiences in America, in England, France, Russia even, and yes, in Japan.

“There was a wonderful production, of which I have the poster on a wall in San Diego, of a production of Hello and Goodbye, featuring two very experienced Japanese actors.”

Fugard takes up an artist-in-residency stint at the Stellenbosch Institute for Advanced Study between September and December and thereafter will take it easy at his Nieu Bethesda home, before starting on his next play, which he has promised to open in the US.

As for the medal and diploma, they will be safely ensconced in a drawer with the other honours Fugard has collected over the years.

“You don’t want reminders like that in the room when you are trying to write a new play. You have to be so careful. “There is a great danger of inflating your own sense of significance. You have to bring humility to your work, be as humble as possible – and that does not come easy,” said Fugard. - Cape Argus

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