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National Arts Festival of smiles returns to rise like a...

Maverick Life


Makhanda arts festival of smiles returned to rise like a fragile phoenix

Patrons at the 2022 National Arts Festival in Makhanda, Eastern Cape. (Photo: Gillian McAinsh)

The National Arts Festival returned after a two-year break, and a new shoot of South African creativity is now breaking through the ground burnt by the pandemic. 

The National Arts Festival, although scorched by Covid, was back, rising like a fragile phoenix. The 2022 event, the first in two years, was scaled down and, of course, your festival experience depended on what you chose to see and where you were coming from.

Certainly, Makhanda residents know all about the fragility of festival bounty. How could they not, swamped as they are by potholes, power cuts and poverty.

The word “stage” meant load shedding, not Shakespeare.

Comics made hay with the donkeys that meandered around the city and it was only a question of time until someone made a play on the plethora of potholes. (Oh wait, someone just did … this year’s Young Artist winner for Performance Art Gavin Krastin and his team of gnomes riffed on this in their 12 Labours.)

Makhanda also knows the transformative power of the arts, though, and on a more practical note how much money that industry brings in — up to R90-million before the pandemic.

In 2024, the festival will be marking its 50th year and many wondered if 2022 would work.

Makhanda artist Viwe Madinda’s photograph of a woman in traditional Xhosa garb atop a statue commemorating the 1820s Settlers captures the vibe of the National Arts Festival. (Photo: Supplied)

High fuel costs, miserable weather and a general lack of money could have put visitors off. However, as Gloria Bosman sang in the finale Homeland concert at the Monument, we needed to Pata Pata (Touch Touch). And not just with music, words and art but also physically, because we needed to bump into one another’s culture and discover that under the different-coloured skins we are pretty much the same.

We craved that human touch. It’s as if we’d been asleep for two years and now were waking up, and wanted to be connected face to face.

Fortunately, the President’s announcement just before the festival opened that masks could be dropped meant that it was a festival of smiles. Conspiratorial, joyous, shy or beaming, we’d forgotten the gap teeth and dimples that often come with a smile — and what a beautiful addition they are to communicating with one another.

The arts can conscientise and move us to take action.

Many festival-goers, for example, opened their wallets after listening to Theatre Benevolent Fund volunteer Peter Terry begging — quite literally – for help with donations to destitute artists, saying the careers even of famous artists may be precarious.

Over the pandemic, many had no income despite their talents. (Yes, we’re addressing you, Minister Nathi Mthethwa.) Destitute, they die without any form of pension.

Terry said he deals with grief daily through his role at the fund. The flip side, however, is that the festival has shown that audiences are yearning for live performances. “It’s incredible to see packed auditoriums again; it is so exciting,” Terry said.

Even scaled back, it was not a small festival and there were three critical elements that contributed to its success: the artists; the tech and admin crew who did the behind-the-scenes grind; and the audience.

As publicist Sascha Polkey noted, this was a festival for the artist, a chance for them to get together and share experiences and stories after a tough two years. Creating art can be lonely, and especially so over a pandemic that shut the doors to venues around the world.

Kudos to those who took that leap to stage a show, most likely with a stone in their heart and a gulp of apprehension. Some bombed, but many did not.

I heard how audiences seemed more appreciative, and of several artists who made unexpectedly crackerjack sales at their exhibitions. Patrons from the Eastern Cape came and showed support, deep in their feels.

The days of 50,000 punters traipsing around the Village Green are probably gone, along with the printed programme. However, visitors to the Monument may have seen Makhanda artist Anton Brink’s oil painting of a phoenix rising. (It hung just outside the Monument Restaurant.) He donated it to the Grahamstown Foundation after the building was razed by fire in 1994.

It was rebuilt and, what’s more, it has become a space which welcomes far more than its original inhabitants.

If this concrete monolith, built to commemorate the flinty resolve of the 1820 Settlers, can reinvent itself after such a blow, then why on Earth would the arts festival not be able to do so?

On the final day of the festival, the Eastern Cape Philharmonic Orchestra joined the glorious voices of Monde Msutwana, Gloria Bosman and Timothy Moloi for the Johnny Clegg song Asimbonanga. As the lyrics “who has the words to close the distance between you and me?” rang out across the Guy Butler Theatre, those of us who were lucky to be there knew the answer. It is our artists, and their soft power.

Support the arts

So let’s support the arts, wherever we are in South Africa.

There is a Johnny Clegg tribute concert in Johannesburg on 17 July, for example. In Gqeberha, we’ve got Kunene and the King at the old Opera House. In the Western Cape, there’s a David Koloane exhibition at the Goodman Gallery, and Tracey Rose at the Zeitz Mocaa.

But don’t support local art out of pity or duty — that is what the government is supposed to help with. (Yes, I’m talking to you again, Minister.)

Support because it gives you joy.

Along the way, you may learn a lot as your horizons expand and your mind broadens without having to travel further than a theatre or gallery.

Compared with the tone-deaf politicians and administrators who have not heard the people they are meant to serve, but instead have left potholes and poverty, festival 2022 was pitch-perfect.

Now the city, stripped down to its bare bones, needs to put more flesh on.

The phoenix needs to rise from the ashes.

A new shoot of South African creativity is breaking through the ground burnt by the pandemic.

Bravo, encore, we want more! DM168

Freelance journalist Gillian McAinsh has attended more than 20 National Arts Festivals.

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper, which is available countrywide for R25.

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