As South Africans brood and stew over the recession, junk status and high unemployment, cynics may wonder how relevant large-scale arts showpieces such as the National Arts Festival (NAF) in Grahamstown are to the country.

They might argue that the arts are a luxury and that national belt-tightening will inevitably lead to households across the socioeconomic spectrum cutting down on pursuits seen as nonessential. And let’s not even talk about the ever shrinking public and corporate funding for the arts.

Of course arts lovers and practitioners will tell you that the fruits of the creative spirit are more important than ever when times are tough, and help people to dissect, discuss and make sense of their fraught reality.

Ashraf Johaardien, who assumed the mantle of executive producer of the NAF’s main programme nine months ago, is a realist but still believes in the value of the arts.

In its 43 years it’s been the audience’s festival and we have to protect that legacy
Ashraf Johaardien

He says the NAF marks "high season" in Grahamstown: "It’s like Cape Town at Christmas time." It’s boom time for the local economy. And he fervently hopes that if you stage it — and stage it well — the audiences will come.

This year the continent’s largest multidisciplinary arts bonanza wakes up the otherwise sleepy Eastern Cape university town over 11 days from June 29 to July 9.

Hundreds of actors, musicians, dancers, artists and technicians will shack up in draughty digs, stock up on box wine and try to hustle back the money they’ve invested in their passion projects. If they’re lucky, they’ll turn a small profit and be creatively enriched by networking with their peers. Some will leave disillusioned and broke, but no-one said the arts and culture landscape was a fair one.

Counting every cent

Johaardien takes a pragmatic approach. "We may be in a technical recession, and the world is changing," he says, referring to the example of President Donald Trump’s call to eliminate the US’s national arts endowment fund, "but the festival remains an example of arts being a major driver of the economy.

"If you remove the arts festival, you’d be robbing the region of the third-largest contributor to its economy, after Rhodes University and the Makana municipality."

A 2013 Rhodes University study estimated that the festival had contributed about R350m to the local economy every year. "In a relatively poor province such as the Eastern Cape, this represents a considerable inflow of funds that would otherwise not have been attracted to the region," the study noted.

The festival supports thousands of jobs, creating work for all the artists who flock there every year to ply their trade — and support each other’s work too.

A large section of the festival’s audience come from the surrounding areas, and the study also found that about 40% of the patrons were not white — showing how the event’s demographics have shifted over the years.

But Johaardien admits there have been challenges in putting together "a balanced programme with artistic merit and broad appeal for the Eastern Cape, national and international audiences", not least in the current throttled funding climate.

"We’ve had to count every cent. There have been lots of negotiations between myself and the artistic committee about what makes the cut, about wanting works and not being able to afford them ... there have been creative fireworks, but in a good way, and I hope this shows in the work."

Though he made his name as an actor and playwright, this is familiar terrain for Johaardien, who is also a seasoned arts manager and administrator. But, as executive producer, he’s had to adjust to the "sheer scale and amplification" of the festival as well as understanding its intricate ecosystem. This includes the Main, Fringe and Arena programmes, the Standard Bank Jazz Festival, the schools festival, the children’s festival, the independently run Fingo Festival, Wordfest and the student theatre festival.

"As newbies are wont to do, I’ve been tempted to make radical changes. It’s like being a parent: sometimes you have to be tough. But ultimately, in its 43 years it’s been the audience’s festival and we have to protect that legacy."

At every National Arts Festival, audiences are curious to see what the new crop of Standard Bank Young Artists are up to as they stretch their own creative boundaries — and, quite often, upend people’s expectations. This year a strong contingent will debut bold new works, including playwright-director Monageng "Vice" Motshabi (theatre), choreographer Thandazile Radebe (contemporary dance), cellist Abel Selaocoe (classical music), bassist Benjamin Jephta (jazz), multimedia artist Dineo Bopape (performance art) and sculptor Beth Diane Armstrong.

A scene from Dada Masilo’s Giselle Picture: STELLA OLIVIER
A scene from Dada Masilo’s Giselle Picture: STELLA OLIVIER

For Johaardien, highlights on the theatre programme include one-woman shows Womb of Fire, featuring Rehane Abrahams ("she’s a phenomenal theatre maker with integrity") and The Crows Plucked Your Sinews with Aisha Mohammed from the UK ("a one-woman telling of the impact of recent history on lives, exploring the magical potential of theatre by bending time").

UK comedy acts

What Remains Picture: JOHN GUTIERREZ
What Remains Picture: JOHN GUTIERREZ

Festivalgoers can also look forward to Sylvaine Strike’s inventive rendering of Molière’s Tartuffe (as part of a French focus at the festival), new works by former Young Artist-award winners Jade Bowers and Neil Coppen (Black and NewFoundLand, respectively), and the return of playwright Nadia Davids with the haunting slavery-themed piece What Remains, featuring Denise Newman.

Comedy is always a strong drawcard and this year there will be several UK comedy acts soliciting belly laughs, including stand-up comedian Stephen K Amos. The irrepressible duo of Ben Voss and John van de Ruit return with their new sketch comedy Mamba Republic and "there will be a Rob van Vuuren festival within the festival", as Johaardien puts it, referring to the prolific funnyman who tends to stage (and sell out) multiple shows in Grahamstown every year.

This year’s festival boasts a particularly strong contemporary dance line-up, with some familiar faces returning to its stages. These include Vincent Mantsoe jetting in from France to perform his new solo work KonKoriti and fellow former Young Artist-award winner Dada Masilo scorching up the stage with her explosive feminist take on Giselle.

On the music side, Johaardien can’t wait to see The Soil — a group that, incidentally, was "discovered" at the festival six years ago. Robin Auld and Wendy Oldfield will team up for an electrifying set, with Kahn Morbee and Karen Zoid joining forces for another killer collaboration.

The Soil’s Buhle Mda
The Soil’s Buhle Mda

Another treat will be seeing 13-year-old violinist Pendo Masote, the third generation of the legendary musical Masote family, in action. Jazz lovers can sink their chops into performances by Judith Sephuma, Kyle Shepherd, Samson Diamond and Marcus Wyatt’s fascinating-looking new project, the "Afrobalkan-skadubhall" mishmash that is Bombshelter Beast.

Johaardien singles out the art exhibition by Armstrong, titled in perpetuum, as a must-see. "She’s an interesting, introspective, process-driven artist," he notes, predicting her massive welded sculptures will be a festival talking point.

Powerful new SA films such as Kalushi: The Story of Solomon Mahlangu, Tess and Noem My Skollie will get an airing on the film programme, with the filmmakers introducing their creations. An exciting new festival development is the screening of two of the UK’s National Theatre Live productions in the Guy Butler Theatre — Amadeus and Twelfth Night.

Twelfth Night. Picture: MARK BRENNER
Twelfth Night. Picture: MARK BRENNER

And, for those who like their entertainment left of centre, Johaardien’s "hidden gem" pick of the fest is the intriguingly titled Swiss piece NEONS Never Ever, Oh! Noisy Shadows, which he describes as an "edgy, future-focused contemporary dance work that is framed as performance art".

It’s certainly a tempting mixed platter that awaits patrons. Johaardien says what has helped immensely have been the international partnerships and collaborations that were put in place by his predecessor, Ismail Mahomed, and he wants to further bolster these relations.

On his radar for the future will be strengthening the festival’s profile overseas to attract more foreign visitors. He points out that one international delegation of four people has just spent R10,000 on tickets alone, a drop in the ocean when you’re paying in euros, pounds or dollars, but a lot of money for SA artists.

"I want to focus on what you might call foreign currency trading. Our ticket prices are already very low compared to, say, Jo’burg, but we are also the cheapest arts festival for international visitors. It’s well known in SA, but I think our narrative can more loudly articulate what the festival does to a global audience."

National Arts Festival, Grahamstown, June 29 to July 9

Please sign in or register to comment.