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‘We’re all ready for a live, physically shared experience’ | In conversation with the NAF’s Rucera Seethal

UPDATE: The National Arts Festival is back to 100% capacity thanks to the removal of Covid-19 restrictions. More tickets are therefore on sale for the big shows you’ve been asking for.

Later this month, the 2022 National Arts Festival (NAF) will once again open itself up to live audiences from 23 June to 3 July.

Ahead of the 11-days of live music, theatre, visual art, dance and more, we spoke with Artistic Director, Rucera Seethal, to find out what the NAF team has learned from the past two years, which aspects of the Festival she’s most looking forward to, and what it means to be in the theatre, the gallery and the concert hall once more.  

Rucera Seethal interview National Arts Festival 2022

Hi Rucera, thanks for taking the time to speak with us. This will be your third year as Artistic Director of the NAF, but the first live festival for you in the role. How are you feeling about welcoming audiences back to Makhanda?

Welcoming audiences to Makhanda feels like a package arriving after being ordered a few years earlier… the anticipation and excitement is all there, but there is also a trepidation of what exactly will now finally arrive. Having said that, I think we all have ‘uncertainty’ now well lodged in our vocabulary of life, and I feel an openness to be in the moment, in Makhanda and to engage with how it all unfolds.

I’m also aware that in varying ways, specifically economically, Makhanda missed this live festival and perhaps more than ever, having a live festival which involves the town, its streets, its stories, its people, its chilly nights, is quite important.

National Arts Festival 2022 programme line-up Criminal Tribes Act: Extended
A scene from Criminal Tribes Act: Extended

The past two years allowed for a great deal of learning and rethinking, and saw the development of new digital infrastructures and ways of hosting a South African arts festival. How have the virtual iterations of the NAF influenced the planning of this year’s Festival, and will the online component of the Festival still be available this year?

Virtual iterations of the Festival went hand in hand with virtual explorations of making and experiencing work, across artists, festival-makers and audience. Making art meant making new ways of working and showing. Those experiences haven’t gone away, and I think many back stories of productions and exhibitions, as well as the backstory of the making of the Festival itself, sit to larger degrees in virtual experiences. That may not be immediately evident in the experience of the live festival, but it’s important to note as those involved in presenting work, funding work, marketing work, are dealing with changing conditions and the changing needs of the arts sector. 

National Arts Festival programme line-up 2022 Indibano
National Arts Festival programme line-up 2022 Indibano

In terms of planning the programme, the NAF wasn’t going to ‘step-back’.  If I permit myself to reflect on a Festival team and artistic community performing under strain, the last two years presented situations requiring phenomenal adaptability and courage: 2020 as a completely virtual festival in response to artists making and audiences experiencing during a hard lockdown context, and 2021, with live performed productions but virtually transmitted via livestreaming due to the sudden banning of audiences. These were both periods of dense learning, sometimes painfully so, and sometimes with exciting and surprising outcomes.

So this year, yes, we are all ready for a live, physically shared experience, for gathering and experiencing our bodies and emotions in relation to others and to place, for talking and dreaming and laughing and crying together… I am so ready.

But, we also make the space for continuing this journey into new technology, virtual experiences, and relationships with screens, which is the current and future world.

National Arts Festival 2022 programme line-up Cara Stacey
Cara Stacey, Transbordamento

This year we livestream a selected handful of works which we feel are more suited to the format, larger works like the Eastern Cape Philharmonic Concert with Richard Cock: Homeland, also in collaboration with Cape Town Opera, Janni Younge’s Hamlet featuring life-size puppets, circus-based on both weekends and the mid-week music act Indibano which is a meeting of new musicians from the Eastern and Western Cape pushing genre boundaries. We still have a vNAF component where you’ll find everything from SBYA Cara Stacy’s podcast series featuring interviews with indigenous musicians, to Mmino Wa Bana by Mahlaga Molepo out of Limpopo, and Stage Fright by Heloine Armstrong based in the Northern Cape. As it goes with NAF, it is a big offering but also with a broader representation from across the country, and the web-based programme has greater searchability making it easier and more fun to get lost in.

National Arts Festival 2022 programme line-up Cape Town Opera
Cape Town Opera Chorus with Chorus Master Marvin Kernelle
National Arts Festival programme line-up Eastern Cape Philharmonic
ECPO with Richard Cock, Pops concert

Venues are operating at 50% capacity this year. How will this impact the way audiences go about planning their Festival?    

Secure your tickets now if you haven’t already!

You’ve spoken about the strong thread of ‘stories from history, and explorations of other ways of seeing and being’ woven throughout this year’s programme. What role does the Festival’s curated programme play in this regard?

Much in our world has changed drastically in the past few years, and there is more change ahead. I think we are already inside ‘other ways of being and seeing’ and artists on the curated programme are beautifully and boldly exploring this from deeply personal experiences to speculative propositions. 

SBYA for Performance Art Gavin Krastin’s 12 Labours extends his own experience of being in his body through recovery last year, into what he describes as twelve individual performative acts and public community interventions, actions centred around notions of repair, community building, gratitude and transgressive joy. A departure from what audiences who know his work may have otherwise expected, but I think a brave proposal for his SBYA year. 

National Arts Festival 2022 line-up Gavin Krastin
Gavin Krastin’s 12 Labours PHOTO by Evaan Jason Ferreira

New to South African audiences are Clara Delorme’s two works, firstly being in her white, female, trained dance body in L’albâtre, and secondly confronting the internet algorithm-demons to reclaim and redefine her online presence as an artist in her pointed and clever work Clara Delorme Lift Her Leg To Make Her Vagina Lip Come Out. Gavin Werner’s spacious and touching script, Spanish Steps, presents two everyday characters, a hard-working and sharp-edged woman and her unrefined white male colleague unaware of his privilege and comfortable in his apathy. Through some fraught moments and tense silences, they find long buried pains and dreams through the eyes of each other.

National Arts Festival 2022 programme line-up Clara Delorme
Clara Delorme, Double Bill

From a speculative starting point of new stories and myths, How a Falling Star Lit Up the Purple Sky is the second collaborative work between South African pantsula crew Impilo and Jeremy Nedd proposing a paradigm shift, rethinking the idea of the archetype of the ‘Western Cowboy’ in the psychic and geographical spaces occupied by the western, the (Wild) West, and the South. Similarly engaging with mythology and folklore, Empath Theatres’ Isidlamlilo is a theatre work written by previous SBYA winner Niel Coppen in collaboration with Mpume Mthombeni who also performs in the one hander as a past IFP assassin who has mistakenly been declared dead by home affairs. Isidlamlilo proposes a magical-realist framing of the period in the build-up to the 1994 elections, speaking to both the country’s haunted past and present-day complexities. SBYA for Theatre, Thando Doni, also bravely proposes a retake on the story of Xhosa prophet Nongqawuse, in his work titled Ngqawuse.

National Arts Festival 2022 line-up Isidlamiliso
Isidlamiliso (The Fire Eater), Neil Coppen

The Japanese duo Chikara Fujiwara and Minori Sumiyoshiyama will have quite literally been in Makhanda for just under two months before festival, their first time on the African Continent, immersing themselves in the town’s history and personal stories to write and map narratives of the town which visitors and locals can navigate using their adventure book Engeki Quest, learning unknown personal and at times quirky histories of precise points in the town. They are part of a two-year project also with Nafasi Art Space in Dar es Salaam which hopefully allows exchange between Makhanda and Dar in 2023.

Audiences will no doubt be in awe of Johannesburg-based Usha Seejarim’s massive wings made from domestic iron bases strategically suspended about the fountain foyer, a duality of weight and flight. I predict a compelling urge to take a selfie.

National Arts Festival 2022 line-up  NAF Usha Seejarim
Usha Seejarim, Impeccable Freedom
National Arts Festival 2022 line-up NAF Usha Seejarim
Usha Seejarim, Tethered Storyline

Will the Festival trademarks – the Village Green, the Long Table, sunset concerts at the Monument – be back this year?  

Yes they will, all of them, and as it was in previous years, you can just pull in and be in the vibe.

Lastly, what are you most looking forward to seeing, doing and experience at this year’s Festival? Do you have any must-see/must-do suggestions? 

If you catch lauded South African musicians assemble for SPAZA at the Black Power Station, you would be seeing the world premiere before the group set off for their European Tour. The touring repertoire they would have workshopped the week before while being in residency in Makhanda, working with ILAM and local inspirations of the town.

It’s not easy to bring International artists, especially from Majority World countries, at NAF 2022 you have the rare possibility to see Sri Lankan artist Venuri Perera’s live art performance Passport Blessing Ceremony, and maybe even get your passport blessed. The installation Corponomy will be at the Main Gallery, Filipino artist Eisa Jocson uses the word ‘corponomy’ to describe the body as it adapts to different economic situations. From India, the theatre work Criminal Tribes Act: Extended examines inherent conflicts between the speaker and the subject, the spoken and the unspoken, and the (in)escapability of the ‘us’, ‘them’ and ‘the other’, while Guy Buttery collaborates with Indian master musicians Mohd. Amjad Khan and Mudassir Khan.

National Arts Festival 2022 programme SPAZA
Spaza (Mushroom Hour) PHOTO by Tseliso Monaheng

Closer to home, catch new works from bold voices in the performing arts like Koleka Putuma, in the music of Gqeberha outfit Umle (Siphamandla Fete and Siyabonga Radu), and in theatre from Tiisetso Mashifane wa Noni. And visit Makhanda-based artist Lindi Nyaniso in residency in his studio in Joza.

Marikana, Ten Years On: What We Lost in the Shooting combines paintings and drawings by massacred miners’ family members, text and photography from After Marikana, the ten-year ‘slow journalism’ project by Paul Botes and Niren Tolsi which documents the consequences of the massacre on the affected families and communities. In addition to the exhibition, the NAF hosts a discursive and public intervention programme throughout the week of the Festival. 

National Arts Festival programme line-up NAF Corponomy
Corponomy Installation, Rockbund Art Museum
National Arts Festival programme line-up NAF Corponomy
Corponomy Installation, Rockbund Art Museum

Lastly, something you can’t attend, but should take note of – this year we have the live National Schools Festival happening inside the Festival. I’m looking forward to hopefully meeting learners and hearing their responses and reflections on the programme and Festival experience. We haven’t been doing so well as a generation of elders, and I feel we must put serious effort into making open and caring spaces for our young people to make their future world; spaces not for us to teach or lead, but for us to listen and learn and support. It’s shorter than usual and with fewer students, but I’m very glad that we could put the live Schools festival together and I think deep down, this is what I am most interested in and curious about. 

Explore the full National Arts Festival programme here.

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