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

Projects that followed included the Un-Festival, a playful event in which nothing physically took place and everyone was actively discouraged from attending, and the more recent launch of the Moving Cube, a virtual platform designed to accompany UJ Gallery’s physical gallery space. A project that was in the works pre-pandemic, the launch of the Moving Cube was ultimately brought forward by the pandemic, and debuted with an interdisciplinary, multi-media showcase of internationally-renowned artist Willem Boshoff’s Blind Alphabet series.
     Another highlight for the UJ Arts & Culture team has been Hlakanyana. Produced with the talents of Madevu Entertainment (Zolani Shangase and Michael Wallace) and Janice Honeyman, Hlakanyana was another physical project that had to be radically reimagined by the department.

  • University of Johannesburg UJ Arts & Culture covid 19 response pandemic 2020
  • University of Johannesburg UJ Arts & Culture covid 19 response pandemic 2020
  • University of Johannesburg UJ Arts & Culture covid 19 response pandemic 2020
  • University of Johannesburg UJ Arts & Culture covid 19 response pandemic 2020
  • University of Johannesburg UJ Arts & Culture covid 19 response pandemic 2020
  • University of Johannesburg UJ Arts & Culture covid 19 response pandemic 2020

‘The plan was always to produce a script called Hlakanyana which is based on an African folk tale. We started with that process, but the project in its original form was completely derailed due to Covid,’ explains Jacobs. ‘The one aspect that we identified that could proceed was the development of the script. That had to be done in a very unconventional way – workshop theatre could not happen so we conceptualised an online process between a small group of us and we were then joined by a bigger group of musicians, choreographers and performers. We went into an actual exercise where we did workshop theatre using different mediums – we worked with Whatsapp, instant messaging, and role-playing on zoom.’
     Crucially, UJ Arts & Culture decided from the beginning that they would not be attempting to replicate traditional theatre practices online, but rather use the available resources, technologies, and modes of operation to create something new. Morgan-Baatjies explains that working with the tools at hand, as well as working outside of one’s discipline or comfort zone, yielded surprising results.  

‘It was so interesting at the end of it, when we listened to the reading, because we couldn’t believe that this all took place over zoom and Whatsapp. Authentic narratives about our people, about our stories – for this to have come through no matter the circumstances, was exceptional. What’s coming out is not your normal folktale story, the subtext is there around morals and values, but it’s cutting edge, it’s interesting. This production was a highlight and it’s going to continue to be a highlight.’

Head of Marketing for UJ Arts & Culture, Lakin Morgan-Baatjies

Of course, not everything was a seamless process of innovation and creative collaboration. Jacobs and Morgan-Baatjies both express a deep sadness at the loss of this year’s projects, as well as the ability to physically be in galleries and theatre spaces. Facilitating the teaching of drama and dance online was acutely difficult, as was the need to curtail their FADA Interdisciplinary Theatre Project which sees second year students from across the disciplines coming together to collaborate on a theatre project. 

  • University of Johannesburg UJ Arts & Culture covid 19 response pandemic 2020
  • University of Johannesburg UJ Arts & Culture covid 19 response pandemic 2020

‘The main challenge is to really to make peace with what was lost,’ says Jacobs. ‘Also, to sustain those people who can’t work virtually, those who made their livelihoods by lighting the stage or designing the sound for a live, physical production.’
     Morgan-Baatjies echoes these sentiments, adding that the ability to accept what’s lost and to adapt to a new way of working is crucial to sustaining the arts.

‘With any kind of organisation, the ability to be agile is vital. Under Pieter’s leadership, that’s what we’ve been able to do, is to create an organisation that is flexible, that is agile, that is quick to change, and that can morph into whatever we need it to be when we need it to.’

Head of Marketing for UJ Arts & Culture, Lakin Morgan-Baatjies

Looking forward, UJ Arts & Culture is poised to pull off a tandem programme of virtual and physical events in 2021. ‘We’ll have physical productions and events, but with a virtual programme running alongside them,’ says Jacobs. ‘UJ is a dynamic space that will continue to change.’
     ‘We are preparing for this kind of parallel life next year and we feel confident that we’ll be able to do that,’ adds Morgan-Baatjies. ‘Creating art is what we do, and creating a space that speaks to creativity and collaboration is a vital part of that process.’

Go back to page 1 of our reflection on a year of interdisciplinary collaboration.

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