Cultural boycotts

2011-09-16 00:00

THERE will always be an argument that favours art for art’s sake. In a nation such as ours where a liberation struggle was driven by the slogan, “Culture is a weapon of the struggle”, we are more conscious that art is more than just a commodity. We recognise that one of the greatest potentials of art is its ability to raise our consciousness of one another.

Whether it is live theatre, visual art or even a humble form of craft-art with which we engage, we can never escape the compelling questions about how that piece of work is connected to our humanity. Art engages us emotionally, intellectually and socially. Through our engagement with it, we form perspectives that we can use as social and political tools.

Live theatre in South Africa, particularly our large archives of protest theatre, will always be a testimony that art can be a powerful political force. It has been used to mobilise people, inform their perspectives and bring about social change. Similarly, our growing resource of post-apartheid theatre will be testimony to how the arts are succeeding in bringing people together and contributing to strengthening social cohesion in our country.

Seventeen years into our democracy, arts communities in South Africa still have not fully recovered from the divides that were imposed as a result of apartheid. Apart from the disparate levels of skills bet­ween black and white artists, we will have to grapple with how this divide continues to impact on the economic livelihoods of black and white artists for years to come.

Parallels can be drawn bet­ween how outstanding South African artists, who have been isolated from the rest of the international world, have to work so much harder to earn their positions in the international arts arena. While the cultural boycott against South Africa served to isolate us, in post-apartheid South Africa, we still need to create the kinds of mechanisms that will accelerate the artistic profiles of our artists so they can find their places in the international arts economy.

Cultural boycotts are not ends in themselves, they are tactics that are used to aid a larger strategy. They have successful results politically, but they also leave behind visible scars on an arts economy and on the intellectual arts resources of a nation.

The originator of the cultural boycott, Father Trevor Huddleston, understood this when he first called for a boycott by artists, sports figures and others against South Africa. The point was to reverse new measures under apartheid and begin the process of rolling back the larger segregation and discrimination of South African society in the early fifties.

By the late eighties, South African liberation groups in exile had begun to find a way forward via a selective boycott — supporting groups that advanced the democratic process and opposing those that did not.

All around the world, discussions about a cultural boycott of Israel are often vibrant and hard-lined, but the reality is that in South Africa, much of this discussion has remained within focused activists groups and academia. The South African arts community as a collective has not actively engaged in this debate.

Last year, when the Cape Town Opera toured to Israel, there was a spark of outrage from activists. This could have been a catalyst for activist organisations to engage with South African arts organisations more broadly to formulate a clear policy, informed and driven by the arts community, regarding any kind of a cultural boycott. After the company had boarded their flights, the fiery fervour was lost and there was no further engagement with the arts sector.

Now that a theatre company from Israel is scheduled to perform at The Witness Hilton Arts Festival, the debate has once again raised its head coupled with a call for organisers and sponsors to cancel the performances.

There are at least three possible positions that The Witness Hilton Arts Festival could take. One is to ignore the criticism and carry on as planned — arguing that art and politics are from different universes. A second position would be to heed the call and cancel the performances. But a third way could be to build on the visit by the touring company by engaging with these artists about the issues in their country and in relation to how we respond to them influenced by our own history.

On the eve of The Witness Hilton Arts Festival, the organisers seem to be divided in the sensitivities for the anti-Israel activists on the one hand and their festival patrons on the other hand. So much more could be achieved by using this as an opportunity to engage with these artists whose work goes beyond advancing public diplomacy for Israel, but whose work is politically sensitive about human suffering. At this late stage, it would be more beneficial to engage with the artists about how strongly South Africans feel about the conditions in Israel and Palestine.

Sue Clarence, the director of The Witness Hilton Arts Festival, is caught between activists and theatre patrons. She probably feels that she has to lobby for the practice of art when she knows that the power of the arts can serve to change the world.

This dilemma creates an opportunity for the arts sector, the pro-Israeli sector and the anti-Israeli sector to recognise that there is a need for a larger dialogue with the South African arts community around the issue of international cultural sanctions. Snapping at arts administrators on the eve of their events is short-sighted. It is a lost opportunity to support the much-needed dialogue for the South African arts sector to engage on how we position our arts festivals in relation to the rest of the world.

• Ismail Mahomed is director of the National Arts Festival. He writes in his personal capacit­y.

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