South Africa’s visionaries, mavericks and disruptors headline this year’s National Arts Festival, which runs from 30 June to 10 July in Grahamstown.
The programme taps into the national mood with fierce, feisty and funny productions that both celebrate South Africa’s vibrant contemporary culture as well as tackle the wounds of the country’s traumatic and violent past.
Visitors to Grahamstown can look forward to world-class performances from local and international theatre companies, including some reinvented and reinvigorated classics, as well as to breath-taking contemporary dance from the Cape Dance Company, sizzling performances by Aka, the African prince of hip hop, family fare from the Chinese Guangzhou Song and Dance Ensemble, and some heart-and brain-busting work from returning Standard Bank Ovation Award winners on the Arena programme.
Ismail Mahomed, the Artistic Director of the National Arts Festival, said he had relied on history to provide the context for building this year’s programme, which creates space not for nostalgia but for critical reflection, analysis and re-invention.
‘While this is a challenging time for South Africa, and the arts sector in particular, we are proud to present a programme that is artistically strong, textured in its expression, and effectively representative of the diversity of the South African arts sector,’ Mahomed said.
Now in its 42nd year, the National Arts Festival is the largest and longest-running celebration of the arts on the African continent. For 11 days, an eclectic mix of drama, dance, music, performance and visual art, street performances and family fare is presented in the transformed Eastern Cape town, enthralling and entertaining thousands of visitors.
This year, almost 80% of the Main programme is either written, directed, curated or headlined by women, with acclaimed playwright, director and producer Lara Foot leading the charge as 2016’s FEATURED ARTIST.
Foot, the chief executive and artistic director of the Baxter Theatre in Cape Town, will premiere ‘The Inconvenience of Wings’. Set in a landscape of memory and dreams, it features theatre bluebloods Andrew Buckland, Mncedisi Shabangu and Jennifer Steyn. Foot will also restage two of her previous works: the award-winning ‘Karoo Moose’, starring the original cast; and ‘Tshepang’, the extraordinarily poetic and redemptive telling of one of South Africa’s most brutal stories.
This year’s SOLO THEATRE FESTIVAL, supported by the Embassy of the Netherlands, comprises eight inspired one-handers about women, performed by women. ‘The stories celebrate the compassion, tenacity and integrity with which women engage in their political landscapes,’ Mahomed said.
The productions include ‘Ruth First: 117 Days’ (performed by Jackie Rens); ‘Amsterdam’ (Chanje Kunda); ‘Immortal’ (Jenna Dunster); ‘Unveiled’ (Gushan Mia); ‘Penny’ (Zethu Dlomo); ‘In Bocca Al Lupo’ (Jemma Kahn); ‘Blonde Poison’ (Fiona Ramsay); and ‘Watching’ (Ester Natzijl, a production that comes to the Festival from the 2015 Amsterdam Fringe).
- ‘OoMaSisulu’, based on the life of Albertina Sisulu and performed by Thembi Mtshali, will premiere in Grahamstown.
- ‘Noka Ya Bokamoso’ is artist Lerato Shadi’s exploration of the representation of the black female body.
- ‘Looking/Seeing/Being/Disappearing’, choreographed and performed by Nadine Joseph, explores the representation of the ‘disappearing woman’ in contemporary South Africa.
The FILM FESTIVAL complements the Solo programme with a series of films about female political activists. Supported by the Embassy of Russia, it also marks the 10th anniversary of Russian Television with a number of documentaries produced by leading journalists. The voices of women as well as those of the LGBT community and the youth have been crucial in helping to secure rights for South Africans – and this year, the 40th anniversary of the Soweto Uprising – we celebrate that contribution to our freedom. THINK!FEST, a programme of lectures and debates that runs for the duration of the Festival, includes a focus on parallels between the 1976 uprisings and the #FeesMustFall movement.
The National Arts Festival’s support of the regenerative and catalytic energy of the youth is represented by the STANDARD BANK YOUNG ARTIST AWARDS, with this year’s winners taking on issues around identity, representation and change. Dance winner Themba Mbuli is partnering with the Unmute Dance Company to present ‘Sold!’, a theatrical reclamation of historical identity through conversation in the present. The work of Mohau Modisakeng, winner for Visual Arts, engages with questions of history, body and place within a post-apartheid society, while Theatre winner Jade Bowers is due to present her daring interpretation of ‘Scorched’, exploring the nuances of identity and difference, way beyond the simple black-white binary of our apartheid past.
Racial, cultural, sexual and historical identity are also examined in photographer Zanele Muholi’s ‘Somnyama Ngonyama’ (‘Hail, the Dark Lioness’), which confronts the politics of race and pigment in the photographic archive, while Drama for Life’s ‘Afri-Queer’ intimately engages with the lives of gay men.
An exploration of national and personal identity is at the heart of Janni Younge’s reimagining of Stravinsky’s much-loved ballet, ‘The Firebird’. By using contemporary choreography and giant puppets together with the thematic and narrative structure of the original, Younge is able to find free and powerful expression.
The National Arts Festival’s location in the heartland of the Eastern Cape also gives the event a distinct flavour and focus. This year, it will honour Fort Hare University‘s 100th anniversary by featuring two productions centred on literary icon, Can Themba (a Fort Hare alumnus): ‘Crepuscule’, a fictional take on the love affair between Themba and Jean Hart in 1950’s Sophiatown; and the biographical ‘The House of Truth’, with acclaimed actor Sello Maake kaNcube.
The GALA CONCERT this year will be presented by the Eastern Cape Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Richard Cock. Violinist Avigail Bushakevitz, this year’s Standard Bank Young Artist for Music, will perform with the orchestra at the Sunday afternoon concert.
The EASTERN CAPE ENSEMBLE programme will feature performances by indigenous music and jazz groups from across the province. In ‘African Piano’, New York-based South African pianist Kathleen Tagg will take the audience through works for piano by African classical composers and those deeply influenced by the music of central Africa to arrangements of music as diverse as Zimbabwean mbira music, Malian kora songs and original compositions.
Previous winners of Standard Bank Ovation Awards, which reward Fringe productions for innovation and creative excellence, have been invited to participate in the ARENA programme. Presented by Business and Arts South Africa, this award-winners’ playground includes productions spanning theatre (Denise Newman’s ‘As ever, Bessie’; Tony Miyambo’s ‘Secret Ballot’; A Conspiracy of Clowns’ ‘The Heart’s Hotel’;), music (Josie Field and Laurie Levine, Asanda Mqiki, Ottoman Slap and Umle) as well as dance and physical theatre (Chaeli Campaign’s ‘No Fun ction alL anguage’ [SUBS: CORR] and Masidlale Productions’ ‘Kochira’ ???).
Two international productions from the 2015 Amsterdam Fringe will round off the Arena programme, travelling to Grahamstown as part of an ongoing partnership between the two events: ‘Barrera’, in which two clowns despair the loss of their closest friend, and ‘The Futurists’, an experimental musical journey unlike anything you’ve ever heard.
Deepening international collaboration sees Kabosh, a theatre company from Northern Ireland, presenting the South African premiere of the emotionally charged ‘Those You Pass in the Street’, which interrogates reconciliation through integration of the personal with the political.
The National Arts Festival continues to strengthen its relationship with South America, bringing exciting new acts: Uruguayan musician Mateo Mera and Colombian vallenato grassroots artist Alvaro Meza. An Afro-Latin vibe will be carried through by Ladies of the Midnight Blue, a duo passionate about social equality and change.
This year marks the 20th anniversary of the Festival’s collaboration with the French Institute of South Africa (IFAS). The anniversary will be highlighted with IFAS’s support across a number of productions, such as ‘Les Cenci’, an intermedial performance that explores mental illness, violence and theatrical cruelty through the life of French poet, essayist, actor and theatre director Antoine Marie Joseph Artaud, better known as Antonin Artaud; and ‘Songs Without Words From Three Generations’, a piano recital by Ammiel Bushakevitz.
The Standard Bank JAZZ FESTIVAL offers a selection of some of the hottest sounds, including vocalist Siya Makuzeni, this year’s Standard Bank Young Artist Award winner for Jazz, who will lead a stellar ensemble of young South African musicians. Also on the programme are headliners Ringo Madlingozi and Caiphus Semenya, as well as bands and artists from Brazil, the Netherlands, the UK, France, Sweden and Austria.
Festival-goers can look forward to a diverse and engaging Fringe programme. Subsidised by the National Lottery, there are more than 360 productions headed to town. With 115 productions, theatre is the mainstay of the NATIONAL LOTTERY FRINGE, followed by dance and physical theatre (59), comedy (56 productions), visual art (42 exhibitions), music (37 acts) and cabaret (20). There’s also family fare and a bunch of illusionists to make sure that South Africa’s favourite open-access platform offers something for everyone.
‘This year’s National Arts Festival takes place at a fascinating time in our country’s history and growth,’ said Tony Lankester, the Festival’s chief executive. ‘On our stages, you’ll find insightful, cutting commentary on life in South Africa, reflecting the anger, pride, defiance, determination and hope of an emerging generation of artists.
‘These are conversations all South Africans should be part of. If you’ve ever thought of coming to Grahamstown, this is the year to do it. More than ever the voices of our artists deserve to be heard and engaged with, so why not make this the year?’
Mahomed has been at the artistic helm of the National Arts Festival for the past nine years. He announced on Wednesday that this year’s Festival would be his last. ‘I believe this to be the best job in the South African arts sector, but it needs constant refreshing, and the Festival will benefit from the energy and focus that a new Artistic Director will bring,’ he said.
Mahomed said his focus had been firmly on delivering another inspiring and varied programme in 2016, but an announcement about his future plans would be made in due course.
Lankester acknowledged the contribution Mahomed has made to the Festival during his tenure as Artistic Director. ‘He has made a significant impact on the event as well as on the national conversation about the arts’, Lankester said, ‘We’ll talk more about his influence in the weeks to come as we find ways to thank him for his hard work and passion.’
Booking for the 2016 National Arts Festival opens on 9 May.