Mthuthuzeli November. Picture: WAYNETECH

Numerous studies have indicated that the arts and culture sector produces a special blend of social, cultural and economic benefits. The annual National Arts Festival (NAF) is such a case in point.

The NAF contributes R377.15 million to the economy of the Eastern Cape and a further R94.4m to Grahamstown (recently renamed Makhanda). This is a significant contributor to the region in terms of tourism and associated spin-offs.

The 2018 NAF has once again been an important platform for artists to showcase their productions either on the fringe or the main programme. Member of the Artistic Committee, David Thatanelo April, also the lead curator of the Dance programme for 2018, says that dance works are always a strong audience drawcard at the festival.

April says that the criteria employed for curatorial selection for the main dance programme rested heavily on the need to recognise and support artistic innovation and excellence. 

The dance works included strong, critical voices and looked at issues of identity and what it means to be a contemporary African citizen. The themes were current, relevant and necessary, dealing with some of the issues around space, place and African identity.

This was evident in the 2018 Standard Bank Young Artist Award winner for Dance, Musa Hlatshwayo’s Udodana. 

Musa Hlatshwayo and Sbonelo Mchunu unfurl the complexities of black male masculinity in Doda. Picture: Supplied

Udodana is a full-length dance theatre work and, according to Hlatshwayo, seeks to explore the black male body, its associated and constructed identity, and its placement in the society (particularly in traditional African communities, households and churches) against the many ongoing incidents that constantly draw attention to the silenced brokenness of the black male identity. 

The Marrabenta Solos created by Panaibra Canda and presented by Pro Helvetia, also dealt with similar issues of identity. Canda presented a show that deconstructs cultural representations of a “pure” African body.

April says that the thematic framework of the dance programme also centred on honouring those who continue to nurture young dancemakers who are shaping the future South African dance landscape. 

Scenes from the riveting dance drama, KIU, which draws inspiration from the ancient African Rain Dance, indigenous to the Bolobedu people. Pictures: Sanmari Marais

Examples of two such productions were Kiu by Mdu Nhlapo presented by the South African State Theatre, and Sun - The Rite of Passage by Mthuthuzeli November, who was commissioned by the Cape Dance Company (CDC), under the artistic direction of Debbie Turner.

April added that it was important to include a variety of intergenerational choreographic voices which will help to interrogate the past, review the present and build a sense of what the future entails.

MIDM dancers. Picture: Supplied

As part of Moving into Dance Mophatong’s (MIDM) 40th Anniversary Year, the company presented Ukubonga Inhlonipho, paying respect to the work and artistry of MIDM founder, Sylvia Glasser, and some of their celebrated award winning choreographers over the years.

Award-winning Sbonakaliso Ndaba’s Ikhaya dealt with loss, lack of belonging and unconditional love.

One of the highlights on this year’s programme was Mamela Nyamza, who marked the milestones of Young Artist for Dance and was the Featured Artist for 2018. Nyamza encapsulates what Nina Simone once articulated as an artist’s duty: to reflect the times as painters, sculptors, poets, musicians and dancers.

Mamela Nyamza’s Hatched being flighted at the National Arts Festival. Picture: Christo Doherty

Nyamza’s work remains politically charged and tackles issues that challenge societal norms on matters such as religion and gender related problems. This was evident in her three works, Hatched, Phuma Langa and Black Privilege.

April comments that it is worth noting that the NAF constantly attracts foreign producers who generate new work for local artists. Furthermore, there is a lot of support for the festival coming from partnering producers who assist in enabling work to travel beyond the NAF. There is a remarkable cycle that happens when works, funded by overseas resources, end up touring in that country. This is how many works get to travel to Germany, France and the UK after the festival.

Next year marks the 35th anniversary of this important platform, henceforth known as the Makhanda Festival. Makhanda was a Xhosa warrior, philosopher and a military man. 

He fought against colonialism in battles, including an attack which he led against the British garrison at Grahamstown in 1819.