Getting Lost in the Excitement: But remembering the reality

Africa’s Largest National Arts Festival

One of the world’s biggest festivals is gearing up for another winter arts frenzy in Grahamstown. For us at The Journalist it is an appropriate time to focus on Transformation and The Arts. We spoke to the NAF Artistic Director, Ismail Mahomed about creating local opportunities, privileged spaces and using creativity for change.

The annual National Arts Festival (NAF), that attracts visitors in the hundreds of thousands to the small town of Grahamstown for ’11 days of Amazing’ is upon us. It takes place from 2 to 12 July. It’s easy to get lost in the excitement of art, comedy, physical theatre, dance and music. From guitarist and vocalist Lionel Loueke to comedian Dylan Moran, pianist Bokani Dyer and satirists Chester Missing and Pieter-Dirk Uys it will indeed be Amazing. But for who?

Even with an impressive range of social responsibility projects from Schools Fest that is aimed at getting school kids involved in the arts, to Hands On! Masks Off!, that is a platform for newbies to work with industry pros, Artworks Circus and the Innovation Hub, among many others… what does it really take to transform a festival that has its roots steeped in the legacy of colonialism?

Last year “Festival of the Rich” was scrawled all over the city during the annual festival. Taggers vandalized street signs leading in to Grahamstown, performance venues around the city were tagged as well, along with bathrooms at the 1820 Settlers’ Monument. It became a crude reminder that while the NAF has made major strides, it still walks a bit of a tightrope… Some say it’s a space for the elite in what has been labelled the ‘poorest province’ in South Africa.

The NAF has proved to be a driver in Grahamstown as well as in the province, contributing R349.9-million to its economy, according to a socio-economic study conducted by the Rhodes University Economics Department. The study found that visitors to the province spend about R27-million before and after they attend the festival and that the Festival contributes an estimated R90-million to the GDP of the City of Grahamstown. This materializes as direct and indirect spend, job creation and tourism activity.

“We’re cognisant of the history from where the festival originated, and we’re also cognisant of the social, political and economic dynamics of Grahamstown, and this particular province,” said Ismail Mahomed, Artistic Director of NAF. He added that they work year round on creating opportunities for local development as well as on audience development in order to ‘build literacy of the arts’.

According to people in the know, Ismail Mohamed’s leadership has rescued the NAF from its problematic direction.

But then in a nation that faces tough transformational issues, the arts is mistakenly perceived as a luxury. And often we compare bread and butter issues as if there are only extreme choices to be made.

At an event held at Rhodes University last year, a talk outlining the shocking inequality between households on either side of the city was presented by Janet Jobson, Director of the DG Murray Trust. By drawing data from two different households in the city, one from the suburbs (Ward 4), and one in the township (Ward 11), these were some of the findings:

Access to education was 22% in the suburbs, versus 3% in the township. The numbers related to electricity access stood at 98% in the suburbs, and just 19% in the township. When it came to average annual income, a family in the suburbs earned roughly R155 000, while the family in the township had to make do with R14 500 for the entire year. The family in the township earned just 9% of what a family in the suburbs earned.

This is the context in which the festival operates. But in peace time it is precisely the power of the arts that is needed to be a driving force for change and to help us raise awareness, reduce the comfort levels and shift these grossly unequal realities. The NAF Director says that in addition to providing platforms for artistic expression, much more can be done.

“We try to find ways in which to develop service providers through opportunities, through training, and in that particular way allow a lot more of the economic resources to be diverted in groups within the city who can be drawn into the economy,” said Mahomed.

“Over the last number of years we’ve seen more and more local Grahamstown artists becoming a significant part of the economy, whether that is as technicians, or as arts trainees working in our offices or moving on to work for other festivals, but also artists who are able to be cast in mainstream productions,” he said.

“This particular year we have at least three artists who are cast in international co-productions. So what we’ve seen over the last number of years is that the training opportunities and the educational opportunities that we’ve offered to artists has allowed them to become a lot more visible in the economy of the arts,” said Mahomed.

The increase in visibility is also thanks to grassroots projects like Fingo Festival, which boasts local hip-hop artists and b-boys; as well as kids’ activities and workshops for bedroom producers. Now in its fifth year, running from 8 to11 July, Director of the Fingo Festival, Xolila Madinda, said the festival has “opened up the mind of the community to the idea that the festival doesn’t just stop at Rhodes or in the centre of town. Its growth is township-wise.”

Art is a huge driver of the local economy, with the festival contributing a significant amount to the GDP of Grahamstown, as well as drawing traders from far afield to sell their wares at the festival market.

Despite the progress, the tensions still exist for those who live on the ‘other side’ of town. The best example of this is the controversial relocation of the main festival market, that used to be held in the city centre. Within walking distance, accessible to visitors and locals and placed pretty much on the line of the invisible divide. The market used to be a space where art and craft was used to draw locals and tourists from all backgrounds.

In 2009 the market was moved to the Great Field at Rhodes University, leaving traders at Fiddlers Green without the foot traffic they had in the past. Their profits have seen a sharp dip; with traders coming from far afield making a loss and voicing their frustrations at what they perceive to be a racist system that favours white and generally better resourced traders.

“That particular decision of the festival had been made in the best interest of traders and crafters… I think any kind of change is difficult for people to embrace, but I think one needs to look at the long term vision,” said Mahomed. “If you take the origins of the market in Grahamstown the very first market started in a very small venue in Albany Museum, before it moved to the City Hall, before it moved to Fiddlers Green and finally Rhodes campus.”

“Those movements were necessitated by growth, from a small room in Albany Museum through to City Hall, through to Fiddlers and the existing space so it’s not a decision taken without thought, it is a decision provoked by the need for growth,” said Mahomed.

The first festival was held in 1974, at the opening of the 1820 Settlers National Monument, that was built to celebrate the 1820 British colonists, who were sent to ‘consolidate and defend the eastern frontier against the neighbouring Xhosa people, and to provide a boost to the English population.’ It’s the enduring legacy of privilege that the event and sections of the arts community in South Africa, is constantly negotiating.

“I think the question of the festival as a privilege festival is a cliché. [It] comes up every year, it’s come up for the last 41 years of the festival and will probably come up for the next 30 years in the history of the festival as well. I think we’re a dynamic society, we’re constantly changing, we grapple with change constantly…in a complex society such as ours, we will grapple with these issues of transformation for decades,” said Mahomed.

“What we need to do is embrace that it is a long process, it will constantly change, new demands will constantly come about, and we need to be receptive to those particular demands that constantly emerge. Those demands emerge because the society we live in, the economy and the global divide and the global community are also breaking down so we have to be responsive. Transformation is not an easy process, it’s a complex and long process that one cannot put timelines to,” said Mahomed.

In the meantime the posters have gone up and the artists are rolling in. And has the festival transformed? Like our nation it’s a mega Work in Progress.