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The Arts Festival in Grahamstown — a student’s impression

Christelle du Toit

Before I can look at whether this year’s Grahamstown Festival has been a success, it is necessary to look at what a Festival is supposed to be. Here, of course, I can only apply my own, highly subjective criteria, since every single person has different views on this matter. To me a Festival should firstly act as a platform for the performing arts, bringing them into contact with the man on the street, as well as provide a livelihood for the artists. In this respect the economic viability of a Festival also comes into question. A Festival should not only act as a meeting place for different cultures where they will be free to interact in the absence of political agendas, but rather to further a mutual interest in the arts. Most importantly though, Festivals should offer people the opportunity to expand their horizons, to see the world in a different way and perhaps even inspire them to change their set opinions about other people or things that differ from their “known”.

Lets look at the first aspect then. A fact that has been stated by numerous artists over the Festival period, is that Festivals are the only real platform that are left for performing artists in South Africa. There are no more touring troupes or companies that bring the arts to the people of the country, hence Festivals were created as an opportunity for people to get as much culture as they possibly can in 7-14 days (depending on the length of the festival). And looking at the diversity of audience members present in Grahamstown, this goal was indeed achieved. People from across the colour, age, and gender spectrum were present and enjoying the arts. True, there was still a great degree of segregation amongst people of different colours (it is very rare that you would see black people, coloured people and white people sitting truly mingled at a performance), but this is something that still predominates in South Africa. Still, I believe Festivals like the one in Grahamstown have the power to break down these kinds of barriers and are actually in the process of doing this.

I was at a talk where Dr. Kama Kamanda from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, now residing in the Netherlands, was the guest speaker. Although Dr. Kamanda is French speaking, most of the event was hosted in Xhosa, which left me as much in the dark as him as to what was going on. Yet, a Xhosa gentleman next to me realised my non-understanding and translated for me during the whole event, without so much as blinking an eye. An acceptance of different cultures is exactly what the Grahamstown Festival focuses on and although they still have quite a way to go, they are getting there slowly. At this specific talk I could very much identify with what my translator said of Dr. Kamanda’s reaction to the imbongi: “He understands nothing, but he appreciates.”

On the economic front, Standard Bank have recently announced that they will indeed be acting as bridging sponsor until a new main sponsor can be found for the Festival. This goes a long way in alleviating fears from artists and art-lovers alike who were uncertain as to what the future held. Even the Grahamstown Foundation’s withdrawal need not be seen as a negative thing, since they will still be involved in the organisation of the Festival, allowing for a transition to an independent company to take place.

Looking at the criteria of a successful Festival, i.e. that it should act as a meeting ground for different cultures, there were a number of shows in Grahamstown that aimed to do exactly this. The first example is that of “Boet & Swaer”, starring two Albany Farmers in the roles of settlers, commenting on South African society by means of a seemingly everyday conversation. This piece forces the audience to look critically at their own prejudices and preconceptions, and allows room for them to laugh at those very aspects. Yet, it is not a political piece and allows for at least some intelligence on the part of the audience member. Another play that has an alarmingly powerful effect on its audience was “SpieŽlbeeld”, which was also the only show at the Festival that had me in tears. Through the tradition of epic theatre a tale of human suffering with an ultimate message of hope unfolds, sucking you into the lives of the characters without you even realising it.

Sibongile Khumalo’s “Spirit of the Nation” concert can be seen as the definitive space for interaction on a creative level. This brilliantly choreographed production intertwined elements as diverse as trapeze artistry, violins, jazz, and circus-style clowning to create a joyous celebration of life in a truly South African environment. It was marvellous to walk out without having been preached to (either politically or other) and hear the ecstatic lady in front of me say: “This is the true Africa!”

As I mentioned earlier, though, I believe the most significant task of any Arts Festival, is to expand people’s horizons, to change their opinions about the world that they assumed, and to perhaps offer them an alternative. An acquaintance of mine went to this year’s festival, coming from a West Rand background that is still very much white dominated and set in the pattern that was established by Apartheid, although more subtly so. After two days she came to me and said, “You know what, I don’t think I’m ready for this new South Africa after all.” This lady is not unintelligent or ill informed, but after only a few days in Grahamstown, she was forced to realise that there is a world out there that she doesn’t know or recognise. I’m not suggesting that attending an Arts Festival is necessarily going to make her change her life or her whole vision of what is acceptable to her, but at least attending the Festival has planted new ways of seeing the world in her head, which is perhaps about as much as we can hope for.

One of the productions at the Grahamstown Festival that I feel defines what a Festival should be about, is “Chansons, lumiere et Fleurs” which basically consists of four ladies arranging flowers (fleur ...) to selected musical themes (chansons Ö), aided by some clever lighting (lumiere). It is called floral theatre and is the kind of thing that very few people (if anyone who isn’t in an old age home and has no choice) would choose to see when they are not at a Festival. Yet, it is beautifully done and truly relaxes both the mind and the body, something one often craves after a few hectic days of running up and down Grahamstown hills.

Yet, having said all these positive things about the Grahamstown Festival, perhaps it is important to relate to you an experience I had on my first night of the Festival this year:

    “When I left the pretentious dance piece I was watching after half an hour, taking a gap when the people in front of me left, I decided to go check out the music I’d been hearing from outside for the duration of the show. I followed it down a small alley next to Grahamstown Tourism and walked into an open-air venue where there were people dancing to a band that turned out to be not that bad, fires going in steel drums, and a huge bar in the corner. The crowd was a mixture of school kids out for the night, middle-aged couples and even some black people in between them. It looked interesting.

    “I started making notes, thinking that this could be an interesting take on the Festival, when two men zoomed in on me and my notepad and started chatting. Turned out one of them is a stall owner at the Festival who also owns an underwear shop in Port Elizabeth. He, too, was passing when he heard the music, decided to check it out, and continued to stay. We had a huge chat, discussing the different Festivals’ merits and decided that Grahamstown is still the best Festival on the South African circuit. His friend got confused and thought I was the Media Liaison for the venue, and lost interest when he heard I was only a reporter.

    “I walked over to the bar and found out that the venue is actually called the “Alley Cats Saloon” and it was the first time the people who are running it have managed to get a venue over Festival time. In the mean time the band was still singing happily on the stage and people were dancing around in front of them looking perfectly happy to be there, enjoying themselves.

    “After chilling for about five minutes at a discreet table, which was long enough for me to get a beer, a dodgy character slid across and tried to chat me up. At about the same time I noticed that all the black people were actually hanging around the fires to keep warm, the school kids were all merrily tipsy, and the middle aged men were doing their damnedest to get into the matric girls’ pants. I wrote furiously and after about a page of notes the dodgy dude slithered off again. The kids on stage were still banging along and all of a sudden I got an intense feeling of sadness.

    “I tried to finish my beer as quickly as I possibly could, and finally gave up. As I walked out I gave it to one of the guys at the fire — they looked thirsty. I walked to my car, trying to avoid eye-contact with everyone except the security guards and breathed a sigh of relief when there was no parking attendant at my car — I spent the last of my money on a beer. As I sat down in front of the computer I had “Come together, right now Ö” stuck in my head for some bizarre reason Ö”

This, unfortunately, is also part of a Grahamstown Arts Festival experience and, I would wager, of any Arts Festival. As much as we like to talk haughtily about the good the arts can potentially do, it is not going to help at all if chance isn’t instituted on a base level. And on that rather sermon-ish note, I think I’ll leave it open for debate.

boontoe / to the top


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