Life, etc

The World comes to Grahamstown; Grahamstown goes to the World

By J Brooks Spector 9 July 2014

Attending the opening days of the fortieth annual Grahamstown National Arts Festival, J. BROOKS SPECTOR contemplates the meaning of the project and the works on view there – as well as some more troubling signs.

This year represents the fortieth anniversary of the Grahamstown National Arts Festival – a project that first began as a way for the 1820 Settlers Foundation to preserve and advance the importance and place of the English language in South Africa. Originally centred on the works of William Shakespeare as the archetype of the internationally influential English language writer, over the years, the festival has now come to incorporate virtually every art form – and performances now take place in a wide variety of local (and even foreign) languages. Increasingly, too, with the end of the country’s international cultural isolation in 1992, the festival has increasingly incorporated a wide variety of foreign performers as integral parts of its program oeuvre.

The writer, travelling to Grahamstown after arriving at Port Elizabeth’s airport, finds the landscape en route to the festival recapitulates the troubled history of the region. And this is a story that continues to speak to the difficulties the Eastern Cape still faces in achieving both stable governance and economic lift-off. All along the winding road there are signs giving quick shout outs to the region’s earliest occupation by the San, then by the Xhosa, the Afrikaners and then the British – and to the forts established to hold onto this territory in the face of efforts to claw it back from the intruders. Indeed, the very name, Grahamstown, is itself a marker for the British colonel who, at the cost of much bloodshed, helped bring the region forcibly into the British colonial orbit by the early nineteenth century.

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At the same time, the road points out that economic activity – as farming and herding have been giving way due to economic pressures – has been shifting slowly to endeavours like tourism and game farming, along with that one problematic industrial zone and deep water harbour at Coega – a short distance outside of Port Elizabeth. Grahamstown itself, while retaining its major role as an educational hub – with a major university and a roster of “larney” private schools – has shed most of its industrial base and it sometimes seems to be that is thrashing about, trying to find a new economic role for itself in 21st century South Africa.

One of the constant astonishments of Grahamstown is that there will be those sudden, unexpected conversations in the hallways, in snack bars and in the foyers of temporary theatre venues with some very knowledgeable people over things like what new industries might conceivably come to that town to help beat back its horrific unemployment rate. This is in a place where a great many people are really only fully-employed during the two weeks of this festival and the national student drama gathering that comes to town just after this arts festival. The idea now seems to be that the festival must be invested in the city for more than two weeks a year; it must find a way to build up the region as an international educational hub, as a technology innovation hub, or even, perhaps as a destination for a sustained version of ecological tourism. Perhaps it can even become the home base for an economy that attracts a growing population of prosperous retirees.

And, of course, the festival encourages a brand of instant conviviality among attendees and performers alike. On the bus to the city, this writer ends up discussing the potential mutability of genetic coding (did Lamarck and Lysenko somehow have something of a point after all?) with a medical researcher whose hobby is mathematics. Then there is the conversation with someone, who while waiting to buy a life-giving cup of coffee, describes her family’s efforts to earn a livelihood while living on a wind-powered yacht, sailing around the world. And there are those inevitable conversations, too, with students who are newly captivated with the possibilities of a life in the arts (without yet knowing how hard it will be for them), as well as with actors trying to rekindle that creative spark, yet one more time, for yet one more performance.

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The biggest challenge in attending a festival like this – whether it is Grahamstown or at the yet bigger one in Edinburgh, Scotland – is selecting things to see and hear. It would be impossible to see all of them, what with the assortment of featured main festival performances, as well as still hundreds more in the fringe portion of the festival. So choosing also means excluding.

A specialist committee helps the festival’s management to select the shows, performances and concerts for the main festival, a network of counterpart festivals around the world makes further recommendations, foreign embassies and impresarios make additional proposals, and the festival also makes space for the annual Standard Bank Young Artist Awards to have their day in the Sun as well. The fringe stages, by contrast, are effectively open to virtually all who can pay the rather modest fee for a venue and who can also come up with the costs for their travel and subsistence while they are in Grahamstown. Some of these performers sometimes even stay in tents to save a bit of money on their overhead to maximise their earnings.

Arriving at the beginning of this festival, the writer tried for a selection of theatre, music and dance events to get a broad taste for what was on offer. In drama, “Fishers of Hope” and “Black and Blue” were an extraordinary contrast. “Fishers of Hope”, a new work by writer/director Laura Foot, with an evocative set designed by Patrick Curtis, starred veteran actor Mncedisi Shabangu and the work, itself, was built upon field research about the circumstances of an economically punished fishing community on the shores of Kenyan lake. While Shabangu delivered the goods as both narrator and motive force for the action – as a fisherman’s family’s dark secrets finally come to life. However, the resulting action seemed somewhat bloodless, as lessons about environmental degradation and economic predation were ladled out throughout the drama.

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Meanwhile, Black and Blue, a reprise production now a decade old, featured Sylvaine Strike and Atandwa Kani in a play first devised by Strike, and created in conjunction with James Cuningham, Helen Iskander and Danny Mooi, and directed by Cuningham and Iskander. In this gentle, even whimsical, fantasy, Strike plays a widow shattered by her husband’s suicide, while Kani is a gardener who almost seems to have been heaven-sent to coax her out of her depression. They fantasise, ballroom dance, plant seeds, and watch her garden flourish. She softens back into life, and then, one day, suddenly, he is gone. Despite this unexpected resolution, the audience leaves with a lighter heart and a smile on their faces. The extraordinarily versatile Strike is a study in contradictions, while Atandwa is, of course, the son of theatrical legend John Kani – but this younger Kani is well on his way to creating his own iconic status with theatre-goers.

There is lots of comedic drama on offer as well, even if a great deal of it seems rather distinctly unfunny. One exception is Civil Parting, a new work by Nicholas Spagnoletti, directed by Zanne Solomon, and with Shaun Acker and Peter Bosch Botha as a gay couple in a civil union who have come together in their lawyer’s office to make arrangements to dissolve their legal connection. This is rather clearly the stuff of comedy that could only have come about in a very new South Africa. Delivered with some sure timing, the play comes to an end with an unexpected snapper of a conclusion.

But with the limited time available, to see works like these also means missing tantalising productions of modern classics like Desire Under the Elms and Ubu and the Truth Commission, or yet another Sylvaine Strike work, On the Harmful Effects of Tobacco. Tough choices.

Meanwhile, the visiting Geneva Ballet offered an extraordinary, and thoroughly contemporary reworking of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Felix Mendelssohn’s music is still there, mostly, in this work choreographed by Michel Kelemenis, and it stars Joseph Aitken and Yumi Aizawa in a standout cast.

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This Shakespearean comedy, of course, hinges on the mischievous scrambling of a pair of love relationships before everything is finally sorted out in the end, but this Geneva Ballet basically eschews an actual live Puck, an there is a black plastic sculpture of the crucial donkey that seems to have wandered in from a Jeff Koons exhibition. The resulting performance is a work that is, frankly, phallocentric, but in a charming, really exhilarating way to watch. The set is nothing more than a giant hammock hanging from the sky that is in the form of a giant bed of feathers. Red feathers. But it is great to watch. And it is more than enough of a set to make the whole thing work perfectly.

As far as music was concerned, the choices were Kyle Shepherd and Maria Schneider concerts. Capetonian pianist composer Shepherd is this year’s Standard Bank Young Artist Award-winner in jazz and his music is influenced by the kinds of sounds Abdullah Ibrahim has been producing for decades of his albums and in his many live concerts. In much of Shepherd’s music, too, those layers of influences – church choirs and church organs, the muezzin’s call to prayer, cool jazz, even the varieties of langarm dance music – are all there, but deconstructed, reconnected and turned inside out. Performing with previous Young Artist Award winner bassist Shane Cooper, trumpeter Feya Faku, saxophonist Buddy Wells and percussionist Claude Cozens, Shepherd’s sounds offered, by turns, that emblematic Cape piano tremolo, an eastern-inflected ostinato and soaring lyrical moments. It was an evening of carefully controlled, stunning musical chaos.

And then multi-Grammy Award-winning composer/conductor Maria Schneider led a great big band of top performers from South Africa and Norway for an evening of her own soaring compositions. These ranged from works that would not out have been out of place in a concert hall evening devoted to contemporary classical compositions to pieces that drew their energy from inter-continental bird migrations and featured instrumental performances mimicking the cries of mating birds.

But before getting back on the road, there was just enough time to gaze at the astounding installation by twin Young Artist Award winners Hasan and Husain Essop with their unblinking look at Cape Town Muslims in Athlone, the Cape Flats and Bo-Kaap. The exhibition included finely detailed, large-size photographic prints, sculptural installations and video elements. Astonishing and distressing simultaneously, the prints spoke to the jumble of religious and cultural influences operating on the community. Most astonishing, perhaps, were elements like the Qur’an on a stand, flanked by two faceless, armless figures in camouflage patterned burqas, or the altar with two crossed pangas and decorated in a couple of dozen large hanging pocket knives, or the video showing a religiously inspired, stylised self-flagellation exercise. Whoa.

But perhaps even more troubling than Hasan and Husain Essop’s work seems to have been some off-the-cuff remarks from recently appointed Arts and Culture Minister Nathi Mthethwa at the official opening of the festival. While his as-prepared remarks offered the kinds of relatively anodyne praise expected at such events, the kind of thing that charges artists with being the soul of the nation, it was some of his other comments that have produced the murmuring that sets off alarm bells in the minds of those who feel that the arts is almost designed to provoke controversy and question government power.

As The Star reported, “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 paper continued, “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 Star went on to add that “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’ ”.

Comments like this will almost certainly not contribute to encouraging the nascent positive sense that the new minister was trying to find a way towards a rapprochement between the artistic community and a government often seen to be eager to mix it up with a notoriously fractious and combative artistic community – ironically with that feistiness a legacy of the anti-apartheid struggle that so many artists and performers contributed so much to making a success.

Oh, and the writer was supposed to see a new work, Marikana – the Musical. Astonishingly, the production was delayed for a day and missed several performances, as not one but two different buses dispatched to bring the troupe to Grahamstown both broke down en route. Heck of a coincidence, that one! DM

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MAIN PHOTO: Kyle Shepherd, CUEPIX/Michelle Cunliffe. Ballet photos courtesy of Geneva Ballet.

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