A major cultural exchange initiative to strengthen cultural ties between South Africa and the United Kingdom has impressively delivered on its mandate.
The SA-UK Seasons 2014 & 2015 was the multifaceted bilateral project by South Africa’s Department of Arts and Culture and the British Council, whose main objective was to strengthening cultural ties between the two countries. The SA-UK Seasons was comprised of three streams of activity, namely: Joint projects which were approved by the Joint Organising Committee (JOC) and received assistance grants from the JOC fund of R8 million; The South African Season in the UK, which was directly funded by the South African Department of Arts and Culture (DAC) which was managed by the SA Seasons’ team and implemented by the National Film and Video Foundation (NFVF) and lastly the Connect ZA, which was directly funded and managed by the British Council.
During the SA Seasons in the UK more than 800 South African artists travelled to the United Kingdom and performed in more than 15 cities across the UK. The artists featured in more than a thousand performances in performing, visual and creative arts. They collectively attracted audiences of more than half a million people. The SA Department of Arts and Culture invested more than R20 million in this stream of the programme. The UK partners – in the form of major arts festivals arts intuitions, arts council and performing arts institutions – contributed more than R60 million to the resounding successful initiative which gained traction across the United Kingdom.
The Joint programme funded 40 projects and the Connect ZA programme a highly successful. The programme made a lasting impact in the South African cultural landscape, with Business Arts South Africa (BASA) recognising their efforts which aimed to reach new and diverse audiences for the arts and stimulate innovation, whilst forging new collaborations in the creative arts sector.
‘SA-UK Seasons creates a diverse multicultural environment that provides a great framework for cultural diplomacy to be practised by the two countries. The Department of Arts and Culture invested a substantial amount of money in contribution to the initiative. This was to support the vision of forging stronger relations and creating platforms to foster mutual understanding through the arts as part of our ongoing commitment to open up new markets. Whilst showcasing South African talent is a major part of the programme, a large emphasis is also placed on skills transfer, relationship-building as well as education.’ Minister of Arts and Culture, Nathi Mthethwa
He concluded that the SA-UK Seasons had been an overall success, adding, ‘The Seasons managed to promote the growth and sustainability of the arts and culture sector with a strong emphasis on audience development, economic growth and market access.’
Having sung at the inauguration of former and late president Nelson Mandela in 1994, singer and actress Marah Louw paid homage to Madiba’s legacy with a performance at Glasgow’s annual Book Festival Aye Write! in April 2014. Marah had sung in the presence of Mandela on his first visit to Glasgow in 1993. In a celebration held to mark 100 days before the commencement of the Commonwealth 2015 Games, 300 young people aged between 16 and 19 years old also took part in the Aye Write! Future News International Young Journalists’ Conference.
A month before the games, the SA Season in the UK supported the participation of two young South Africans, Samantha van Gysen and Matheu Kieswetter, who were part of the prestigious Commonwealth Youth Orchestra that held Commonwealth Gala Concerts, starting off in Glasgow and performing across the UK. The pan Commonwealth project engaged with all six regions of the Commonwealth.
The SA-UK Seasons 2014 & 2015 included a partnership with major institutions in the UK such as the Edinburgh International Festival. It signalled the best of the Seasons with participation in six different categories, namely the Edinburgh Art Festival, Edinburgh Jazz and Blues Festival, the Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo, Edinburgh International Book Festival, Edinburgh International Film Festival and Edinburgh Fringe Festival. Inala, a dance piece that incorporated South Africa’s internationally acclaimed male choral group, Ladysmith Black Mambazo, premiered at the Edinburgh International Festival Society. They fulfilled key objectives of the Seasons in securing future invitations to tour nationally and internally.
The creators of Ubu and the Truth Commission, a critically applauded theatrical multimedia production by Handspring Puppet Company, directed by William Kentridge, highlighted the atrocities of apartheid and received peer recognition in the festivals in their contribution to talks and discussions. Author Margie Orford represented South Africa on invitation to participate at the Edinburgh International Book Festival to discuss her Clare Hart thrillers, alongside Scottish author Ben McPherson.
The Seasons also boasted noteworthy highlights. Three talented South African fashion designers, Eleni Labrou, Laduma Ngxokolo and Adriaan Kuiters, were amongst 130 emerging designers from 30 countries in the largest public fashion exhibition of its kind. They were placed second for Best Exhibition at the International Fashion Showcase in London. Additionally, Laduma Ngxokolo of the Amaxhosa fashion label received a Best Designer mention at the London Fashion Week.
Multiple award-winning a cappella group The Soil represented South Africa at the Commonwealth Day Celebration held at Westminster Abbey. The trio gave an incredible performance, with Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II and other members of the Royal Family amongst the audience.The group went on to meet the Queen after their performance, heralding a new era in South African cultural integration through art in the UK. The Soil also headlined at the EFG London Jazz Festival, the UK’s largest celebration of jazz music and London’s biggest multi-venue music festival. They shared the stage with GRAMMY-nominated singer, writer and musician Melody Gardot.
Next to worldclass artists were the ladies of song and seasoned jazz divas, Sibongile Khumalo, Gloria Bosman and Thandiswa Mazwai, who brought the Cadogan Hall in London down with their richly South African flavoured hits. The Seasons took pride in two octogenarians who, though partaking in different art genres, made a meaningful impact to the initiative. Charismatic jazz pianist Abdullah Ibrahim, in celebration of his 80th birthday, performed at London’s Southbank Centre. His performances told the story of South Africa’s history and optimism in the new era. He brought together the infectious township jazz of his septet Ekaya, backed by the New Trio, and deservedly received a standing ovation.
The exceptionally talented and world-renowned Ndebele artist Esther Mahlangu also marked her 80th birthday with an illustrative solo exhibition, Esther Mahlangu 80, at the Irma Stern Museum in Cape Town. The exhibition was accompanied by a comprehensive exhibition catalogue featuring most of her life’s work (her signature contemporary paintings that reference her Ndebele heritage). She later travelled to the United Kingdom to showcase her work as part of the Seasons.
In keeping with the Seasons’ objective for skills transfer and driving education, 2011 Standard Bank Young Artist Award winner and talented pianist, Bokani Dyer teamed up with harmonica player Adam Glasser and British jazz flautist and arranger Gareth Lockrane in leading a series of workshops and specialist music education events, live performances at the Ivy House in London and jam sessions celebrating the vibrant legacy of South African jazz composers new and old.
This was Dyer’s second instalment of the Seasons, having previously worked and collaborated with UK-based likeminded musicians in a skills transfer programme. During the educational leg of his participation in the Seasons, Dyer worked with aspirant young musicians, sharing a wealth of creativity found in the distinct South African music style. The UK participants benefitted from the educational workshop at the Royal Academy of Music and showed greater appreciation of South African jazz via the cultural outreach. The Africa in Motion Film Festival gave a platform to artists to showcase the best of South African cinema at the South Africa at 20: Freedom Tour.
High on the goals of this project was the challenge to promote multiculturalism and cross-cultural understanding and tolerance, and, most importantly, deepen the experience and knowledge of other cultures. The project boasted 133 screenings of 25 films across 47 venues in the UK. Two South African films, Hear Me Move and Four Corners, were both picked up by UK distributors for release in 2015. The themes and stories portrayed helped to dispel misconceptions and stereotypes about South Africa.
“The SA-UK Seasons served to change the perception of contemporary culture in both South Africa and the United Kingdom through cultural exchange programmes, tackling the challenge positively. In showcasing and promotion of both countries’ arts and culture in visual arts, theatre, dance, cinema, literature and music, the Seasons successfully delivered in its mission and met the set objectives. These included promoting people-to-people contact, institutional collaboration and programmes that will have the potential for long-term impact and sustainability in the creative sector of both countries”.
Director of the British Council in South Africa, Colm McGivern, said further, ‘The SA-UK Seasons has been the largest programme of people-to-people cultural diplomacy ever mounted by South Africa and the UK. Forging connections with the next generation is principally our concern as to aid in strengthening relationships of people from both continents, which is vitally important. In using artists, creatives and collaborations even right across education and training helps forge stronger relationships from country to country. The SA-UK Seasons has been the template for this. It is important to refresh people’s perceptions of culture in South Africa and the UK to get an up-to-date view, closing the gap between perception and reality.’