“If we invest in the arts, we are investing in something that can heal us.”
Old fault lines still persist and new ones emerge as many of Grahamstown’s arts and culture practitioners continue their quest to create a “sustainable creative synthesis”.
At the start of a small hip hop event on a Saturday afternoon in Fingo Library, Grahamstown rapper and community activist, Xolile ‘X- Nasty’ Madinda stands up and speaks into the microphone. “Be conscious of what you are rapping about here, because you aren’t just representing yourself, you are representing the township, and you have the power to change how your community is viewed.” A few rappers put their fists up in support. Others nod in agreement. Everyone attending the event seems to know what Madinda is talking about, but where is the rest of the community?
This is just one of many local arts events that take place outside of Grahamstown’s city centre. Sometimes they’re theatre productions, or pantsula shows. They’re in one of the various community halls that sit locked up for the majority of the year, only opening their doors for funerals or foreign NGOs hosting awareness talks. They never seem to draw a crowd of more than 20 or 30. You’d think that in Grahamstown, recently labelled as the Eastern Cape’s ‘Creative City’, these halls would be filled to capacity with community members, Rhodes University students, high school learners and arts enthusiasts, but they’re not. So what’s missing?
A month later, Madinda is seated in his car parked behind the Rhodes University Community Engagement Offices, Madinda ends a call, switches to silent, but leaves an earphone in, just in case another call comes through. He continues where he had left off, discussing the stark material divides between the pockets of artistic communities in Grahamstown and their inability to create a sustainable creative synthesis.
“Where was I? Oh, this divide that you are seeing, it is because mentally, we are divided” he says. “It’s not a natural thing for someone to come and see your show on the other side of town or to come out on the weekend to support a local hip hop crew, or just for someone to come up and say ‘Hey man, I like what you’re doing and I’d like to get involved’. We are only transformed by proposals that are written. If we say that we are going to interact with a community arts programme or even make the effort to come out and see it, it’s because it is written in some proposal. People need to invest in what they see is valuable already. We need long term investments and art is the only way to show change and to show that the people have moved after 21 years to this point.”
A Grahamstown local, Madinda heads up the Around Hip Hop events, and is the organiser of the annual Fingo Festival—an event based in Fingo Village Square that runs alongside the National Arts Festival. While Fingo Festival officially started in 2011, the groundwork began years earlier, with local dancers, rappers, and painters coming together in smaller community events situated in Fingo Square. This groundwork was of course, invisible to many until it culminated into an established festival of its own. It seems that for many of Grahamstown’s city centre and suburban residents, a local arts event has to either be attached to an already established brand or organisation, or handwritten invitations at their doorsteps are required in order for them to consider showing up.
One thing is certain though- Grahamstown is a city where interest and participation in the arts is widespread, even if it’s not seen in numbers. On New Street, a car guard named Malibongwe sits and raps, running through his verses and coming up with new lyrics in between sweeping the street outside the nightclubs and offering car washes. In local high schools, students sit through mathematics classes, drawing in their notebooks or waiting for the final bell to ring before they can head home to practise their dance routines. Shifting forward in his seat, Madinda starts explaining that in the townships, there is hardly a lack of artistic resources in terms of talent and willingness to engage, but that artistic organisations and NGOs don’t recognise that existing talent, focusing their efforts on coming in to prescribe their own methods rather than contribute to already existing artistic communities or groups.
“People are starting to realise that there is a divide, because people are asking questions. Why is it still like this after ‘94? Why is there still no theatre in the townships?” asks Madinda, “There’s so much content that could be produced in townships by using that model of taking the situation and highlighting it, not just using it, but fixing it from within so that it blossoms outside. There is a lot of talent there, but the acknowledgment of that talent goes a different way, because either someone joins in to further their career or to try and support what’s going on in the townships and then they go, leaving no legacy behind, only question marks. It leaves people bitter.”
It’s growing hotter inside Madinda’s car now. It’s been more than an hour now since he started discussing the local arts scene in Grahamstown and he could probably talk through another hour, but he’s received two more calls and needs to wrap up.
“People need to invest in what they see is valuable already. I don’t want people to come to me and say ‘I want to start this, are you interested?’ I want people to come and say ‘I like what you’re doing and I think I can add this’ you know?” Madinda pauses, locates his keys and looks up before saying, “We need to find out how to stimulate that helping hand. People must realise that they’re one helping hand and they can join other hands. When that happens, you become a global community that seeks to put together more than pull apart.”
A week later, in a quiet office on one of the top floors of the Rhodes University Drama Department sits someone just as busy, and just as dedicated to Grahamstown’s local arts scene. Swinging a chair around to the side of her desk, Alex Sutherland wastes no time in offering her thoughts on community arts.
“Well let’s start by looking at the label of community arts,” she says. “It’s always been seen as a second cousin to ‘real art’. Certainly if you look at the way any art is funded, it is an elitist activity, which is strongly aligned with social and power structures in most societies in the world. That then relates to how art is framed and as soon as you put the label ‘community’ onto it, it is somehow seen as not as good as- because it was generated in a particular space which is usually a marginalised space. So the framing of it becomes quite patronising, and in this country, it also becomes strongly raced.”
Sutherland’s work has seen her running theatre workshops with rehabilitating prisoners through the Grahamstown Correctional Facility, working with high school students, and coaching local artists to generate storytelling through self-sustainable arts all for a number of years now.
“From the 50s in this country when black and white artists collaborated, there’s been a huge power difference in terms of who gets funding, who gets permits for spaces to perform work, and so we have a whole culture and history of black artists being dependent on white artists for recognition.
That is very slowly changing, but I mean very slowly,” she says. “I think in more urbanised centres, there’s more diversity, there’s more audience, but in a kind of colonial space like Grahamstown, I think it just situates and fixates divisions more than opens up the possibility of democratisation of the arts. I mean isn’t that what Creative City is about? The democratisation of the arts and who participates?”
An example of how a Creative City project can be used to bring the city’s innovative spheres together to produce impactful and beneficial theatre, is Waterline. Directed by Rob Murray and supported by Creative City, Waterline is a satirical take on Grahamstown’s water outages. The show is comprised entirely of local performers, and draws much of its storytelling and content from the lived experiences of each member, told together through physical theatre. Later that week, cast members of Waterline filter into a rehearsal room. On the walls, sheets of paper are spotted here and there, marked with rehearsal schedules and crossed out dates, counting down the days until their production goes to Cape Town Fringe Festival.
One of the actors, Ayanda Nondlwana has been up since 6am, allowing himself enough time to get ready and catch a taxi to the rehearsal space on the other side of town. “It’s never early for us though,” he says seated on a chair, tossing a small soccer ball back and forth between his hands. Nondlwana has spent the last five years involving himself in the local arts scene, teaching pantsula and theatre workshops to students of the Rhodes Drama Department and learners at local high schools. He speaks to another issue present in the local arts scene when discussing these classes, voicing his concern at the lack of engagement from young learners when it comes to art.
“Art is for everyone you know. For us in the township, we grew up around art with our grandfathers sitting around the fire, telling us stories and singing—it’s all art,” he says. “Theatre is not a new thing. It’s been done since we would mimic those stories around the fire with our bodies and tell the stories through performance. There is this mind-set that theatre is for the English and the Westerners only, but it’s not. It’s always existed in our lives, but we as community artists have a responsibility to show the people in the townships that it still exists outside of theatre venues and drama departments.”
Nondlwana also highlights the tensions caused in his neighbourhood through pursuing a career in the arts. Seeking a livelihood through art which takes place in elitist areas is seen as an exclusive act by many in the township because of its proximity to white, Eurocentric spaces.
“You will wake up early, before everyone else and you will come to the university to teach a workshop or to rehearse or whatever, and then you will go home in the evening, exhausted, still having to cook and get some rest,” says Nondlwana. “Soon, neighbours or friends of yours will catch onto where you are going during the week and they will call you a ‘smartboy’ or say that you believe you are better than them, because you are coming to the university to practise your art. They don’t care to ask what it is that you are doing, and they don’t care to come and watch you perform, because they are bitter. They think you are benefitting by becoming more Western.”
The so-called ‘Creative City’ should be far more than a town filled with artists from all sorts of positions, trades, and spaces working towards a multi-faceted creative goal. Certainly, it has a long way to go before it can even achieve the kind of equality required to open up communication between its creative spaces and communities. Good local art is a community in conversation with itself. A community that is aware of its own resources, pitfalls, divides, and opportunities. Madinda calls himself ambitious when talking about the future of Grahamstown’s arts scene, but he’s certainly not overly idealistic.
“I know it’s hard, I know it’s not going to be easy,” he says, “Real art, I mean art that comes from the community, and is for the community, will show the only time where people from all races, religions, and backgrounds, can come together in a broader community. You will not find that anywhere else. Mandela may have melted our hearts so we can come to an understanding, but the hard thing is to build on that understanding and bridge the divides, and that’s what we have to do now. Art is the solution to all these divides. If we invest in the arts, we are investing in something that can heal us.”
All images courtesy of Leila Dee Dougan