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An institution celebrates

The Grahamstown Arts Festival 2004 - an overview

Deborah Seddon

This year's Grahamstown National Arts Festival was billed as a year of celebration. 2004 marked three events that came together in the small Eastern Cape town in the first week of July: ten years of democracy, 30 years of the National Arts Festival, and 100 years of Rhodes University. All three events point to significant achievements, as well as highlighting areas in which politicians, artists and academics need to work actively, creatively and collaboratively to bring the promise of South Africa to fruition. Much has been accomplished, but as the festival strives to become more inclusive and of benefit to people from all walks of life, it is clear that much more still needs to be done.

The Grahamstown Foundation reported that the whole Eastern Cape region benefits from the festival, which generates revenue in excess of R33 million each year. However, it is commonplace that much of this revenue does not make its way to the most needy in the local community. This year steps were taken to address this directly. With the declaration of the Egazini battlefield as a National Heritage Site and the efforts of the Makana Municipality to make the festival - in the words of Municipal Strategic Development officer Ramie Xonxa - mean something to "everybody", about 30 unemployed people were trained and received financial remuneration for acting as township tour guides for the duration of the festival, taking visitors to sites of historical interest. They will now be given further training to become fully qualified tour guides. A week after the festival had finished the local township tour guides reported that this was the first time they had really benefited from the festival since its inception 30 years ago.

Others were less satisfied. Before the start of the festival this year an initiative called the "800 Rooms Project" was started by Eastern Cape Premier Nomisa Balindlela in an effort to spread the economic benefits of the festival to the township. This involved a training scheme, offered to a number of local Rhini residents in preparation for the festival, on how to run a B&B. The programme generated excitement and celebration but was also dogged by controversy as the expected financial benefits were not reaped by participants in the scheme. The B&B owners complained that the promised guests, mainly artists appearing in shows supported by Eastern Cape government initiatives, had failed to materialise. They noted that the programme's lack of co-ordination meant that most of the artists they had expected to house for the duration of the festival had made their own accommodation arrangements - leaving those who had participated in the B&B training scheme with a financial loss. In an effort to remedy the situation the Department of Arts and Culture made attempts during the festival to rehouse artists and to rearrange accommodation for those not attending for the entire ten days.

However, the disgruntled participants in the scheme have since sent a signed memorandum to the Department as well as to the office of the Makana mayor. About 50 B&B owners are now considering claiming compensation for the money spent on beds, linen, heaters and food, all bought in preparation for the paying visitors they had been led to expect. While it was reported in the local newspapers that accommodation was at a premium, with the town bursting at the seams as festinos joined with artists and centenary attendees to fill all the available spaces, the residents of Rhini did not attract the custom they had been promised.

Attendance up
During the ten days the town and the monument building seemed far quieter than in past years, but once again the statistics reflect that show attendance figures were up, with a 9,04 percent increase; 131 900 attendees took in the various performances on offer. There were 494 events and 1 829 presentations this year compared with 464 events and 1 795 presentations in 2003. All the shows I saw played to good-sized audiences with many sold out by the start of the run. The impression is borne out by the numbers, with the Grahamstown Foundation reporting that the main programme had an increase in attendees of 3,3 percent and a 16,8 percent financial increase in sales. On the Fringe, the attendance increase was 12,94 percent, with sales increasing by 22,07 percent in monetary terms.

Media attendance and support increased substantially in 2004, with 392 members of the press attending the festival. Foreign media representation came from the UK, USA, Canada, Germany, Switzerland, China, the Netherlands and Trinidad. Festival Director Lynette Marais noted that once again significant interest was shown by overseas directors and impresarios. The festival offered its usual eclectic mix of languages, ethnicities, political attitudes and priorities. On offer was South African culture in all its different guises: provocative, chaotic, violent, opportunistic, banal, and sometimes completely wonderful.

Official street theatre made a good showing this year. The lawns at the Drostdy Arch saw the return of the successful duo Bheki Mkhwane and Ellis Pearson in three free performances: Boy Called Rubbish, Squawk and iLobolo. On the nearby VG hockey field the Jazzart Dance theatre company in collaboration with Magnet Theatre performed Rain in a Dead Man's Footprints, the story of the landscape of the /Xam, the landscape which bore their humanity, their mind, thoughts and ideas, lost to them through systematic genocide and hunting. Despite the very welcome renewal of the Rhodes University Drama Department's street theatre project Short Changed, which once again involved children from the Eluxolweni Shelter, a clearly visible police presence actively discouraged any other street children from impromptu performances in front of the monument, perhaps in an effort to make the setting for this year's anniversary festival seem more ordered, more celebratory and less complicated that it really was.

Sold-out shows included Antigone, Breathing In, the Winter School lectures by Tony Morphet ("Coetzee's Commitment: the Position of the Writer") and Pieter-Dirk Uys ("Damning with Faint Praise"), and the 50th Anniversary Concert produced by the International Library of African Music. The ILAM concert was a knock-out event. Performances by Zimbabwean guitarist and songwriter Louis Mhlanga, the women of the Eastern Cape Music Ensemble, and the orchestra and dancers of Venancio Mbande, the Chopi timbila xylophone master from southern Mozambique, were the highlights of the show.

But audience members had to be patient. The concert, particularly in the opening half, had an amateurish and unrehearsed feel, and it stretched well beyond the advertised one hour and 40 minutes. No one minds improvisation and jamming by musicians themselves, but in this case it was the MC, Paul Tracey, who was mostly at fault: he frequently reminded the audience that he had come all the way from Los Angeles for the event and so was unable to pronounce any African names. His rambling introductions and anecdotes should have been more strictly limited, if allowed at all, as they detracted from what the audience had come to see and hear - the musicians themselves.

By the time the concert reached its conclusion the audience had more than halved, a terrible shame as the finale, a symphony written by Ant Caplan and premiered at the festival, was certainly worth waiting for. It featured the electrifying mix of the Masakheke Choir, the Andrew Tracey Steelband, and an ensemble of both African and Western musical instruments, fusing both traditions into new and very satisfying combinations. Symphonies of this kind tend to be conceptual, operating as ideas rather than existing as music, but Caplan's fine touch, and his intimate knowledge of the instruments, allowed for a wonderful new piece of work, one which I hope will be performed again to other audiences.

Fourteen years of Kentridge Ö
Another significant event premiering at this year's festival was the 9 Drawings for Projection by William Kentridge. Kentridge is well-known for his animated films, produced by his method of filming his charcoal drawings for a few frames before altering or erasing the images to produce the next. But these films are difficult to access, mostly existing on bad pirate videos with students of his work rarely able to see more than a few frames of a film in available documentaries. But now one is able to view all 14 years of Kentridge's work as one complete filmic collection, beautifully remastered and produced in the original 35 mm format. For the festival the musical accompaniment to the films, composed by Philip Miller and performed by the Sontonga Quartet, was performed live by the Quartet themselves. It was an amazing experience. As a long-time admirer of Kentridge's work, I was more than thrilled to watch all of his films, in chronological order, from Johannesburg, Second Greatest City After Paris (1989) to Tide Table (2003), introduced by the most recent one, the playful and moving Journey to the Moon (2003). At the first showing Kentridge himself appeared to introduce the project and explain his unique method of working - one initiated through his desire to find a way of making films independently without the pressure to compromise his content to suit either the market or potential financial backers. Most members of the audience were not content with one viewing, many returning to see the films for a second or third time.

Ö and the scarcity of visual arts publicity
The excitement generated by the advent of the nine collected Kentridge films should give all who cover the festival pause to consider an aspect which is consistently underpublicised or simply ignored in the rush of yearly theatre reviews: the fine arts. Each year the festival's exhibitions continue to demonstrate the wealth of insight and integrity of South African visual artists, they are usually free to the public, and yet visual arts rarely receive anything like adequate coverage by the press. Whilst the festival media office had photographs on hand to accompany reviews for most of the shows on offer this year they had nothing available for fine art exhibitions. I know that this piece is for OpStage, the theatre space on LitNet, but in the light of this ongoing situation I would like to conclude my overview of this year's bumper festival by highlighting three visual art exhibitions which more than deserve media comment and attention.

Through the Looking Glass is a groundbreaking exhibition examining representations of self by South African women artists, consisting of a wide range of important works gathered from both public and private collections. The exhibition demonstrates the complexity of the self-portraiture genre as a means of engaging with South African society as a whole and is complemented by a book of the same name by Brenda Schmahmann, head of the Department of Fine Arts at Rhodes. After its launch at the festival the exhibition will travel to Port Elizabeth, Johannesburg, and Durban.

Brent Meistre's Sans is an exhibition of black-and-white photographs which grapples with issues of loss, absence, remnants, and traces. Meistre is head of Photography at Rhodes, and like his previous exhibition, Rode, his new work continues to reflect his engagement with South Africa's landscape, history, and psyche. Black holes replacing gates, houses disappearing into the veld leaving only their deserted hearth, spent matches, mattress-less beds, and footage of empty roads all collaborate to create an exhibition which is thoughtful and quietly provocative. The finest set of photographs involves the seriously playful use of a traditional multishaped family photo frame. These frames are almost empty; instead of being crammed full with a number of smiling familial faces their oval, round, and square openings reveal stretches of telephone wire and a bird's nest balanced precariously against the sky. The domestic familiarity of these images evoke an uncanny sense of deficiency, freedom and grief.

Finally, Initiation as a Rite of Passage, curated by Moleleki Ledimo, uses chants, music, video and other visual media to reflect on, question and explore the traditional initiation practices that still feature in contemporary South African society. Generating controversy amongst, and complaints from, both parents of young children and traditional leaders this exhibition grappled most powerfully with the question of what it is permissible to show, and how exhibitions themselves may silently create debate as they depict and thus explore the taboos, secrecy and identities that these important rituals inscribe.

These three visual events were full in their silences, contributing in richly diverse ways to the conversation of South African culture generated by the National Arts Festival. At an occasion commemorating ten years of democracy and 30 years of national arts, both the local community and the South African visual artists should have been granted more of a voice.

LitNet: 19 Augustus 2004

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