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How to keep the arts alive: Reflecting on a year of interdisciplinary collaboration

As we draw closer to the end of what has been an extraordinarily difficult year for the arts, the opportunity to reflect on the past few months, and how we navigated them, can potentially provide us with a clearer way forward.

University of Johannesburg UJ Arts & Culture covid 19 response pandemic 2020
Head of Department for UJ Arts & Culture, Pieter Jacobs PHOTO Suzy Bernstein

It’s no secret that the arts were one of the hardest hit sectors as a result of the global pandemic. It’s also true that some responded to the task of creating and facilitating new work during the pandemic in a way that saw them not only making it through the year, but coming out stronger and more capable as a result. One such example is the University of Johannesburg’s (UJ) Arts & Culture department who, through embracing flexibility, technology, and creativity, were able to continue the work of contemporary performance and art production throughout the year.
     At the start of 2020, UJ Arts & Culture, a division of the university’s Faculty of Art, Design & Architecture (FADA), had a significant amount planned for the year ahead. Then March rolled in and the national lockdown in response to the Covid-19 pandemic forced galleries to close their doors, and theatres to turn off the lights. Events, performances, and exhibitions were cancelled, planned works shelved, and important revenue streams lost, overnight. UJ’s artistic calendar needed to be radically re-imagined, or risk becoming a casualty of the pandemic.
     UJ Arts & Culture Head of Department Pieter Jacobs explains that, as a whole, the university’s pre-existing efforts toward embracing the 4th Industrial Revolution (4IR) meant that they were better prepared for a shift to online modes and methodologies.

‘There’s something to be said about being emotionally and mentally ready for something. Being part of UJ and its drive toward 4IR and shaping our understanding of it, I think prepared us as a department very well to cope with it all. Our productivity has actually increased during this period, and although we hadn’t explored a lot of these virtual ways of working prior to the pandemic, we were ready to take it on.’

UJ Arts & Culture Head of Department Pieter Jacobs
University of Johannesburg UJ Arts & Culture covid 19 response pandemic 2020
Head of Marketing for UJ Arts & Culture, Lakin Morgan-Baatjies PHOTO Meghan McCabe Photography

Quick thinking and a willingness to engage with the arts in an interdisciplinary manner was also crucial. Head of Marketing for UJ Arts & Culture, Lakin Morgan-Baatjies explains how, following the news of South Africa’s national lockdown, they found themselves needing to come up with a quick and imaginative solution.
     ‘This was in March, we had had one meeting, and Pieter gave us a clear directive to say “Guys, things are not going to be the same, we need to put our heads together.” That became the birthplace of The Pandemic which became one of the highlights of the year for us,’ explains Morgan-Baatjies. ‘It was a very natural and authentic response to what was taking place around us. We knew that we wanted to show the world that art is still important, but we wanted to do it with what we had already planned.’
     A swift and responsive interdisciplinary project, The Pandemic saw UJ Art & Culture inviting over 25 visual artists, dancers, and choreographers to each develop a new work inspired by music from the UJ Choir’s album When the Earth Stands Still. Merging dance, music, visual art and more, the project became an early example of the department’s resilience and creativity in the face of global uncertainty.

Continue reading our reflection on a year of interdisciplinary collaboration.

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