The world is welcome in Grahamstown

Cape Town - Although the visitor figures are not yet out for this year’s freezing cold National Arts Festival in Grahamstown, there were some brilliant international acts on everyone’s (blue) lips.

Canadian actor Alon Nashman’s inspiring Alphonse, for one, was performed to sold-out houses.

This year’s festival again offered partnerships with high commissions and arts councils from several countries, including Canada, Switzerland and France.

The festival’s executive producer, Ashraf Johaardien, who is an award-winning playwright, actor and producer, told City Press that many of the acts from the Canadian and Swiss arts councils had built on an ongoing relationship with South African creatives.

Greg MacArthur, a Canadian playwright whose intimate study of four friends – A City – was performed by the University of Johannesburg, attended the festival for the first time this year.

“For me, it’s been great coming to this festival, particularly because I’ve really been able to see what the arts scene is like in South Africa. Being able to meet artists and develop relationships has been great, so hopefully that will be able to grow,” MacArthur said.

Johaardien first met MacArthur about 15 years ago, when he was an intern at the Shore festival in Canada.

(Festival boss Ashraf Johaardien (right) with Canadian playwright Greg MacArthur. Photo: Harsheen Patel)

“In Canada, we’re pretty lucky with our national funding body, the Canada Council for the Arts. And then each province, as well as each municipality, has its own provincial funding agency,” MacArthur said.

“The first grant I got was a travel grant, where they fund artists to see their work, to disseminate the work and spread Canadian work. So, they fund travel and accommodation fees.”

In South Africa, funding opportunities for artists often fall short, leaving many artists to turn to crowdfunding. As someone who has personally been involved with the funding landscape in South Africa, Johaardien believes that much more needs to be done to help fund opportunities for artists.

Johaardien’s best call for this year’s festival was Alphonse, but bringing out these Canadian artists has not gone without criticism.

He said one criticism was that he had brought two white men to perform at the festival.

“What is visible in this year’s festival for me is the manifestation of a lot of networks and contacts and relationships I personally bring,” Johaardien said.

“There are historical relationships embedded in the festival, of course. For example, Our Hamlet and the two dance works that are coming to the Rhodes Theatre, Panaibra Canda’s Mafalala and Ha Mais, are long-standing relationships with Pro Helvetia, the Swiss Arts Council. The French also have a historical relationship with the festival,” Johaardien said.

He also believes that, locally, there is much that needs to be done.

But, for now, reliance on embassies has been central in bringing international acts to perform to local audiences.

“The department of arts and culture always had a funding arm, but that was for taking diplomats to other countries, never artists.

“It’s shifting slowly, but it’s taking a really long time. Last year, we didn’t get lottery funding, which cut a third of our operating budget, so I do think our funding structures need a radical rethink.”

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