Newly appointed Minister of Arts and Culture Nathi Mthethwa.

As cars started trailing into Grahamstown, eateries, bars and other establishments last night prepared for the onslaught of culture vultures descending on the town ahead of the official opening of the National Arts Festival (NAF) on Thursday.

But the newly appointed Minister of Arts and Culture, Nathi Mthethwa, ruffled a few feathers during a media briefing, with a clumsy attempt to take ownership of his position by outlining the function of the arts.

At first matching the uncharacteristically warm weather in this Eastern Cape hamlet, he said “the arts was the nucleus of social building”.

With a diversity of artists and audiences expected to participate in this annual festival as it celebrates its 40th anniversary, Mthethwa said it provided the ideal environment in which a non-racial and non-sexist society could be produced, giving rise to “one human family”. This was despite the fact that the origins of this festival were “shameful” as it was derived from “our colonial and racist past”.

But Mthethwa’s glowing vision of the NAF, as a shining tool able to craft a new cohesive society, was quickly undercut by his view that artists should not cause “social discontent” with works guided by “derogatory intentions”.

The minister did not name any specific works or artists, but when he shifted his attention to freedom of self-expression, saying it was “not an absolute freedom” as it should not challenge the dignity of any individuals, he appeared to be making a covert reference to Brett Murray’s The Spear.

The painting, featuring a likeness of President Jacob Zuma with his private parts on display, evoked a furious national debate in 2012. This included street protests and threats of censorship.

Further driving a link to this controversial artwork, Mthethwa suggested that only “African children understand how to address their elders”.

He said the notion of “caring and sharing” via the arts “should not be done through the lens of colonials, but indigenous people”.

Mthethwa’s address shifted the temperature down a few degrees in this town, which is set to be overrun with artists who may dare to challenge the national agenda that the minister appears to have set for the artistic community.

For while the weather is unpredictable, you can rely on the fact that the festival will include racy, edgy and possibly even offensive works. Artists set out to provoke. Perhaps Mthethwa will appreciate this by the end of the festival.