The Art of Performance is a monthly column written by Dave Mann, an editor and award-winning arts journalist.
It’s Festival time again. Depending on what you do or which circles you move through, those words could mean nothing at all, or they could only really mean one thing – it’s time for eleven straight days of art, music, theatre and more at the annual National Arts Festival. As the cold moves in on Grahamstown and the students of the local university take their leave, thousands of artists, art-lovers, journalists and other wild ones make their way to the sleepy Eastern Cape hollow. For some, it’s a highly anticipated trip, embarked on every year without fail. For others, it can be the start (or end) of a successful career in the arts. For the most part, the NAF is an event that many seek to attend. But it is not without its problems. I have a complex relationship with the NAF. This is probably because I have a complex relationship with Grahamstown. I lived and studied in the small, colonial settler town for four eventful years before leaving it for the decidedly busier and smoggier city of Johannesburg. During those four years, I did what students do. I studied, I partied, I missed home, made friends, made a new home, attended a few National Arts Festivals – student stuff. It was also in Grahamstown that I decided I wanted to write about the arts for a living and this is where the complexities began. Grahamstown is a place with a bloody history and it wears its scars openly – from the architecture and the zoning of the city, to the colonial monuments still firmly anchored to its hillsides and main roads. It’s an infuriatingly rigid place in this way, and art, in all its forms, becomes a good lens through which to interrogate these stubborn histories.
Grahamstown is a place with a bloody history and it wears its scars openly – from the architecture and the zoning of the city, to the colonial monuments still firmly anchored to its hillsides and main roads
Art is everywhere in Grahamstown. You’ll see it at the University and at the NAF of course, but you’ll also see it in the graffiti that marks the walls, the small, but dedicated hip-hop scene, the community outreach programmes, the touring musicians and more. Creativity is currency in Grahamstown, and as it goes, some profit more than others. To give a brief overview of the city, Grahamstown is commonly known as being divided into two parts and it is this divide that halts a fostering of communal artistic talent at the Festival. Writer and Grahamstown resident Aphiwe Ngalo put it best in her 2016 piece for the Cue newspaper: ‘It is no secret that Grahamstown is an unequal town. In Grahamstown, the black population is mainly situated in the eastern, less developed side of town, while the affluent population lives on the west side of town, with its picturesque settler-town colonial architecture and clean streets. The Festival seems to have followed this trend.’ Because of the way these two sides have been set up (historically and presently), most people living in the east will travel to the west daily in order to work. Those in the west mostly remain there. The west is also where the annual NAF situates itself, setting up shop in the various venues owned by the University and other private institutions. At the end of it all, the NAF packs up, the posters and stalls get taken down, the city empties out and everything goes back to normal. The city remains divided.
Remember that good art and music and theatre are things that exist in abundance outside of the set halls and low-lit venues we’re used to frequenting
This is not to say that the NAF should be some great machine of change, capable of correcting centuries of injustice over a few short days in the year, but it can certainly do more than it currently does. To name a few arts-centred initiatives in Grahamstown outside of the NAF and the University – there is Via Kasi Movers, a local pantsula crew who teach the craft to local kids in Joza; there is the Sakhuluntu Cultural Group which provides a space for artistic learning and performance of the arts to children and teenagers after school. Rhanga Crew, Dakkie Yam Studios, and Around Hip Hop are a few of the many hip hop crews and initiatives who host regular cyphers and performances for the local community. All of these organisations and collectives are situated in the east and are active year-round. Like all performing artists, they rely on their craft as a source of income. The NAF, then, could be a great source of both exposure and income for these artists, but it’s often not the case. Space is even more policed than usual during the Festival, meaning travelling to the city centre to perform is no easy task. There’s also the fact that performance venues are booked out months ahead of the Festival, and venue hire fees, poster expenses, and advertising space in the Festival programme are unaffordable for even the most established acts in the country. In short, eleven days of uninterrupted art spread across one small city is a wonderfully unique thing to experience, if you have the money to experience it.
Walk the parts of it that don’t have Festival posters plastered all over them and find out what keeps the creative heart of the city beating when the NAF isn’t in full swing
And ultimately, I know the NAF has its many benefits, and I also know that issues of access to the Festival have to do with more than just the spatial and economic factors of the Festival, (Grahamstown’s infrastructure, for example, is a continual stumbling block) but perhaps it’s time to reassess the very nature of South African arts festivals. To take a cursory glance at artistic, performance-based festivals in the country would show you a neat, linear theme of inaccessibility. The Franschhoek Literary Festival, the Cape Town International Jazz Festival, the FNB Joburg Art Fair, The Design Indaba Festival – all of them take place at set times of the year, in set spaces, for a set amount of time. The only thing that changes are the increasing tickets prices. If you’re at the NAF this year, go ahead and revel in the endless amount of artworks and performances; go and mull around the markets and sample the city’s many quirky bars, coffee shops and restaurants. Pay good money to see great work – sure! But also, make an effort to learn about the city a little more. Walk the parts of it that don’t have Festival posters plastered all over them and find out what keeps the creative heart of the city beating when the NAF isn’t in full swing. Make a habit of doing this and take it home with you. Remember that good art and music and theatre are things that exist in abundance outside of the set halls and low-lit venues we’re used to frequenting.
Creativity is currency in Grahamstown, and as it goes, some profit more than others
Performance, after all, is one of the few public and immediate acts that exist offline in the increasingly online world we’re living in. If we don’t get into the habit of actively seeking it out and supporting performance-based arts on our own time, we’ll likely lose it too. This is one of the main issues plaguing the NAF – the lack of communication and collaboration with its local, year-round artists. And a little communication, as the tired saying tells us, goes a long way. It’s time the NAF, and all those who attend it, get to talking.