UJ puts its money where its mouth is

Pieter Jacobs PHOTO Suzy Bernstein

UJ Arts & Culture, a division of the University of Johannesburg’s (UJ) Faculty of Arts, Design & Architecture (FADA), produces and presents world-class student and professional arts programmes aligned to the university’s vision. A vision that sees the university as an international university of choice, anchored in Africa, dynamically shaping the future. The newly appointed head of UJ Arts & Culture, Pieter Jacobs, comes highly qualified, with a degree in acting/performing arts from Tshwane University of Technology (TUT), completed a business management programme at Unisa and a Master’s in Creative Writing from Wits University. As the very successful CEO of the Arts & Culture Trust for seven years, Jacobs brings a wealth of knowledge and experience to the position. Creative Feel caught up with him to find out about his new challenges at UJ.

The department is multi-layered, with highly demanding theatre and music productions, the UJ Art Gallery and the remarkable UJ Choir, to name a few

     UJ’s strategic objectives aim to achieve ‘excellence in research, innovation, teaching and learning, an international profile for global excellence and stature, and an enriching student learning, friendly learning and living experience in a national and global reputation.’ UJ Arts & Culture plays a vital role in this, providing a robust range of art platforms on all four UJ campuses so that students, staff, alumni and the general public can experience and engage with emerging and established Pan-African and international artists, drawn from the full spectrum of the arts.
     With regards to actual student experience, UJ Arts & Culture plays a notable role in terms of the programmes that the university offers students. Pieter Jacobs points out that the norm at most universities is that unless students specifically study the arts, they don’t get the chance to take part in arts programmes in the way that they would at UJ. While the UJ Arts & Culture department does not offer accredited courses at present, they do contribute to a holistic student environment in a vital way. The department is multi-layered, with highly demanding theatre and music productions, the UJ Art Gallery – which also shows external exhibitions such as the recent Shifting Conversations, a collaboration between UJ and MTN Foundation – and the remarkable UJ Choir, to name a few.


     Part of Jacobs’ plan is to have more of the same opportunities across all campuses, while some art platforms remain on a particular campus – drumming, for example, is only available on the Doornfontein campus. Jacobs has also facilitated a partnership between UJ Arts & Culture and Moving into Dance Mophatong (MIDM), who will present Afrofusion, contemporary and hip-hop classes across all campuses. Poetry slamming and the poetry festival, which is hugely popular at the university, will also be available across all four campuses in the future.
     Jacobs will also be reinstating acting classes so that even if a student doesn’t end up in one of the productions, they can still take acting lessons. The aim is to create a platform for all of these students, who are in a production or in the choir or in the jazz band, to have the opportunity to perform at the planned student art festival at the end of the year. For a two-week period, UJ Arts & Culture venues will see dance and theatre productions, musicals, student productions, as well as an acting and a dance showcase for those students not part of the productions.
     Something Jacobs is also exploring is casting students and professionals in the same productions as part of the theatre season. The highlight of this will be the production of African Gothic (a successful development run was staged in October). Three hundred second year students from across FADA’s different departments (Graphic Design, Architecture, Jewellery Design, Interior Decorating and Industrial Design) were divided into groups and worked on the different elements of African Gothic. The winning group then designed and created the actual stage set that was mounted. The costumes and posters also came out of this process. Over the five-day development run, audience surveys tested what worked and what didn’t work – all of which will be implemented for the 2018 production of African Gothic that UJ Arts & Culture will be taking to the National Arts Festival in Grahamstown.


     At the same time, a new project is under way for 2019. Students will be given a ‘theatre one-on-one’ course, which includes two weeks of master classes on design for theatre, costume design and set design. Industry professionals, such as Sarah Roberts who is a theatre designer and Wits lecturer, are brought in to ensure students receive a high standard of training. They also take part in a master class on marketing for theatre. They are then taken through the production brief and told what the scope of the project is, before being given a week to physically build the models, create marketing campaigns and other collateral.
     There is also, of course, the comedy series, which is done in collaboration with POPArt and Goliath&Goliath. This hugely successful series is always a hit with the students, says Jacobs. ‘That’s one thing that does not need to be advertised. If they know when it is, where it is, they come. They fill the Con Cowan.’
     The music season, which leads up to the much-anticipated Dean’s concert (a fundraiser for the Dean’s bursary fund), is also always a hit. One change that Jacobs will be bringing in, though, are jazz concerts during the year, as well as a UJ weekend of jazz, which will focus on urban jazz and young, emerging jazz musicians. Fittingly, the jazz weekend will take place during Africa Month, starting on 25 May.
     All in all, this will be a full programme for the UJ Arts & Culture department and an embodiment of UJ’s belief in a holistic lifestyle for its students. As Jacobs says, ‘it’s amazing that for so long, they really have put their money where their mouth are by giving their students these opportunities.’