The 45th edition of the National Arts Festival in Makhanda (formerly Grahamstown) will take place two months after the city and Sarah Baartman District host the national celebrations of Freedom Month. April 27, 2019 — just days before the sixth national elections — marks 25 years since the birth of hope for freedom by many disenfranchised people of this land. To many, this year is a milestone, the coming of age.
In recent times artists have themselves reached some freedom milestones: The Performers Protection Amendment Bill has been passed and awaits the last hurdle before it is signed into law, and the debate around the Copyright Amendment Bill is giving all sides the opportunity to engage and make their views known. It’s another sign of our healthy, vibrant democracy that such debate around issues so critical to the creative sector is happening.
Historically, artists played a key role in securing the freedoms which we now enjoy. They stood up and fought the battle and won not by burning theatres, studios, galleries or libraries but through tenacious determination inspired by where their hearts are — the fulfilment of their trade.
For young artists, this achievement should be an indication that each generation faces unique challenges and that it is up to them to deal with and defeat these barriers. It is in the realm of the arts that true freedom is protected. Our artists are the crafters of freedom, the ones who really “get it”.
I am always in awe of how, when the performing arts move our souls, our minds follow. I’m in awe of how one night in a theatre can change a lifetime of prejudice or preconceived notions; of how a passing glimpse of an artwork can call out your name and somehow root you to the spot.
Sadly, much of our lives are filled with the mundanity of work and traffic, social media and live-stream television, a blur of sameness on constant repeat. But the arts and artists have a way of challenging this boxing of life along neat, immovable lines. Through creating work, they ask how could it be otherwise, how would it be if we didn’t go to work that day and instead had the courage to take that taxi to the other end of now.
Artists also ask us to stare into the heart of humanity and acknowledge that it is made from choices and circumstance, right turns and wrong turns, gifts and curve-balls. We really need to fight for that individuality, the right to be a mass of contradictions, if we are going to connect with and truly understand one another.
We are preparing now for the 45th National Arts Festival and our artists are again reflecting on the sticky, hot mess that it is to be human. Key themes emerging in 2019 are those that echo our news stories and dinner table conversations. Many of the works we are presenting are threaded together around the issue of land — what land means to identity and what our interactions with land, earth and soil mean. These works look at how land can be a burden, an albatross around our necks or something which entraps us. But they also acknowledge how deeply land is embedded in our souls, and how we, as Africans, must have our feet rooted to the ground when we look up at the vast sky to feel truly capable of reaching up and walking forward.
The National Arts Festival has always been the space to play out our issues. The festival managed to escape censorship during apartheid and was a place where freedom was able to be expressed — through satire or hidden in storytelling — but it has always been a place where freedom slips through and makes it on to the stage.
It is the freedom the festival continues to defend. So many survivors of war or imprisonment say that they defied their captors by cultivating freedom in their minds. No matter what happened to them in their cells or on the fields of destruction, they made the choice to be free from within. This is the freedom we honour and should remember. That we are also free to express what is on our minds is what we should be celebrating most of all.
So here’s to National Arts Festival’s 45th edition: A celebration of ebumnandini, “a place of enjoyment, a place which is Amazing!”; We look forward to hosting you when we celebrate the most exhilarating of all freedoms — that of our minds. DM
The National Arts Festival runs from 27 June to 7 July 2019.