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The 48th National Arts Festival kicks off this week on 23 June, with an eleven day return to live stages in the Festival’s hometown of Makhanda. As in previous years, the small Eastern Cape city proudly wears its badge as host of the Festival and, having benefited from the R90 million injection into the City’s economy pre-COVID, the return of the flagship event is eagerly awaited.

However, it’s the broader role of the Festival in the creative eco-system that drives an urgency and significance to the return to live programming, despite tough and unpredictable times. The journey of the NAF is intertwined with the story of the arts in South Africa. Starting in 1974 as a response to the need for English arts content, the Festival was always seen as ‘liberal’; quietly (and illegally) staging productions in contravention of the apartheid laws of the day. The Festival was one of the places that artists from diverse backgrounds and disciplines could meet, collaborate, plan and learn from one another. It was here that the pulse of an alternative South African culture could truly be felt.

The post-apartheid optimism and a giddy post-struggle era identity crisis for the arts soon gave way to rising anger and frustration with the themes of socio-economic and political life, whether in satire, drama or visual arts. Just ahead of COVID, new experimentations in form and infusions of global influence signalled a collapse of genres, a shift in audience tastes and a time of accelerated change for creative practitioners. All of this was abruptly curtailed by the arrival of COVID-19.

The Festival did all it could in 2020 and 2021 to sustain the presence and voice of the arts, and to support innovation and creativity. Going online in less than 100 days in 2020, the Festival was a lifeline, both financially and in terms of visibility, for artists who completely lost their avenues for expression and sources of income overnight. The NAF, just as it always had, created and held space for artists despite a myriad of challenges.

Around the world it is clear that online arts content is a model that many are still struggling to monetise and contextualise, however it was an important evolution for the arts – and South Africa’s potential to play on global stages without the costs involved in touring. Arts content made for the stage and arts made for screen are different mediums, and bear further exploration; .the rise of AI, gaming and sentient internet for instance are definitely spaces to watch.

As the Festival returns to its live format with elements online, it remains to be seen whether it will be back to buzzing overnight or whether it will be the start of a slow re-emergence. The current economy may temper the crowds but the hunger for experiences and connection is driving an encouraging spirit of adventure and it may be this hunger that fills the theatres and galleries with culture lovers overdue for their fix.

In spite of everything, artists are still compelled to create. As the elucidators and storytellers, truth-tellers and trouble-makers, their interpretation, imagination and curiosity clears the cobwebs and shakes the foundations of our daily rotation of news, social media and dinner conversation. It is through artists that new stories are born, new possibilities seeded and ideas formed. It is this experience that is at the core of the Festival and as the keeper of our cultural heartbeat, the National Arts Festival is a show that must go on! DM/ML

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