South Africa lights up Paris

2013-05-29 08:51

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For the opening of the South African Season in France last night, dignitaries rocked to the beat of Phuzekhemisi and the Eiffel tower was lit in the colours of Mzansi’s flag. Charl Blignaut reports from Paris

At the Théâtre National de Chaillot in Paris, with its epic view of the Eiffel Tower, South African culture was celebrated in Europe last night at the official opening of the South African Season in France.

After lengthy diplomatic speeches and a dance production, the evening reached a crescendo with the lighting of the Eiffel tower as expensive champagne flowed.

First it glistened with giant fairy lights and then the Parisian landmark was washed in hues of red, green, blue and gold, the colours of the South African flag.

“We were all sitting with our fingers crossed hoping the thing lights up, even though we had tested the lights the night before,” said the CEO of the National Arts Council, Monica Newton, who has been helping plan the event since it was announced on President Jacob Zuma’s state visit to France in March 2011.

Last year French artists, scientists, educators and sports stars visited South Africa. This year – until December – close to 1?000 South Africans will be presenting work in France in exchange.

They will be working on 240 projects across 100 French cities, often in collaboration with French companies.

“Amandla!” yelled isiZulu musician Phuzekhemisi when he headed outside and looked at the tower.

“It makes me so happy and proud. I wish we could take the whole tower back home to South Africa!”

Arts minister Paul Mashatile, attending the opening of the French South African cultural exchange programme alongside Aurélie Filippetti, France’s Minister of Culture and Communication, was hugging journalists and diplomats alike, beaming.

He was travelling with a delegation which included Minister of Trade and Industry Rob Davis and the KwaZulu-Natal Minister of Arts and Culture – at the behest of the president, he told the estimated 1?500 guests.

Numerous current and former French cabinet ministers, MPs and industry leaders were invited to the celebration, smiling in black tie at the brightly-clad Phuzekhemisi band’s performance with dancers at the entrance to a building where the Declaration of Human Rights was signed in 1948.

Guests were ushered into the national theatre where Mashatile praised France for supporting South Africa “in its darkest hour during apartheid”.

Filippeti, elegant in a short black dress with a South African-coloured scarf to match Mashatile’s, praised the culture minister and also the evening’s choreographer Robyn Orlin, who she says is “a South African dance ambassador”.

Avant-garde dance producer Orlin presented a production called Beauty, working with talent from the Johannesburg-based Moving Into Dance Mophatong company.

Emerging in the auditorium, dancers encouraged audience participation.

Politicians and business leaders were made to gurgle water from a bottle provided and at one stage were made to stand up and make a Saturday Night Fever dance move.

The production normally gets the audience to throw their water bottles onto the stage, “but we were forced to cut that bit because of safety reasons with ministers present,” said one of the season’s co-curators Bongani Thembe.

“We also cut the production down by 20 minutes because this was not a usual theatre audience.”

With costumes by designer Marianne Fassler, the production sought to celebrate good news from Africa and extracted random moments of beauty from the streets of Joburg – from plates of tomatoes sold on the pavement to magnificent frocks made of plastic supermarket and China bags.

Although there has been a French-Moroccan Season in the past, South Africa is the first sub-Saharan country to engage in the exchange. France has pioneered these seasons for over two decades in the name of cultural diplomacy.

“We really believe that there is no way we can work and trade together if we don’t know one another,” said French curator Laurent Clavel. “And what defines us is our culture.”

The last such lighting of the Eiffel Tower was in 2009 for the anniversary of the European Union. Before that the Chinese colours graced the tower in 2004.

The head of SA Tourism in France, Linda Sangaret, said that French tourists to South Africa had increased dramatically by 14.5% by the end of 2012 compared with 2011.

“We had been promoting safaris and scenic beauty until we did some research and found out that French tourists are looking for culture and human exchange,” she said.

Nelson Mandela’s portrait hung in the reception area and his name punctuated the evening’s speeches. He was quoted often and mentioned repeatedly.

The tower will stay lit in the South African colours for a week and will again be lit in South African colours for Youth Day on June 16 and then for two days in the build-up to Mandela’s birthday and Mandela Day on July 18.

France will be encouraged to join in the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory’s Mandela Day initiative where the public are asked to contribute 67 minutes to a worthy cause.

The Tour de France will kick off with a banner on June 29 in honour of the former president.

Newton revealed Mashatile intends pursuing similar cultural and scientific exchanges with countries such as Angola, Nigeria and the UK.

Tomorrow night a Mandela exhibition will open in Paris, drawn from a display at the Apartheid Museum, which includes a replica of his cell on Robben Island.

» Blignaut’s trip to Paris was paid for by the National Arts Council

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