National Arts Festival: Floundering funding a travesty

2013-07-14 18:59

The one minute, in low-lying Grahamstown in the Eastern Cape, you’re sweltering in a T-shirt, the next you’re paying a premium at a craft store for knitted hat, scarf and gloves to take the bite off the unexpected icy cold settling over the valley, and at your flesh. As Crowded House sings, ‘the temperature can drop away, like four seasons in one day....’

But I survived the erratic July weather over the National Arts Festival and I remain in an upbeat mood after a fantastic Arts experience. I was bowled over by the wealth of creativity and showmanship on offer, though I hung my head in disbelief with the realisation that I'd not shown my face in Grahamstown, at the Festival, for twenty-five years. I'd missed, all this time, the annual extravaganza of art, music, dance, discussion and theatre.

With Bloody Satisfied, the first of the Short Sharp Stories Awards anthologies officially launched, my plan was to catch a show or two. Soak in some music. Relax. Spend time in my ‘res’ room doing some writing of my own. But instead I got completely and absolutely infected by the spirit of the Festival. My ‘one or two shows’ turned into five days of back to back performances. So yes, I’m all cultured out, but in a good way.

I was there as Karen Zoid belted out Engel, as Dan Patlansky lightly brushed his fingers across the frets to elicit from his guitar powerful blues riffs. I jived with hundreds of Mamas as Jonas Gwangwa dedicated jazz tune Flowers of the Nation to the ladies in the packed Guy Butler Hall.I consider myself privileged to have heard Samson Diamond, township-kid made good, stroke his violin like silk as his string quartet played Hidden Treasures so note-perfectly. The Voice of Anne Frank, performed by the Czech Republic's Spitfire Theatre Company, poignantly illuminated the war-time diarist's tender adolescence. David Butler’s stellar performance in The Bram Fischer Waltz, and the bizarre (and sometime obscene) illustrated The Episcene Butcher Storiesheld me enthralled. And Skierlik,the one-man show so powerfully performed by writer-actor Philip Dikotla, kept me riveted through the protagonist's journey of bitterness and acceptance as he told the story of the 2008 mass-shooting in the township of the same name, Skierlik.

There was so much more....

But let’s step back a bit, to the months leading up to the Festival. By all accounts, it was deeply frustrating for Festival Management to be kept waiting for funding from a number of their usual underwriters. As a result the Festival was down-sized.

For the regular punter (that’s me) this most likely made no difference to the quality of the experience, as having 365 shows to choose from was plenty. In fact it’s been calculated that if you watched every show back to back, you’d be sitting for around six months to get through them all.

To pay one’s dues is part and parcel of any creative game. Every artist hones his craft: he or she puts in the hours of practice necessary for proficiency, and a public airing at the Festival is a next step to test the work.  The National Arts Festival provides the stage. For the less well known artists who were proposed by the Artistic Committee but didn't make it to Grahamstown because funds weren't at the ready, it must have been a bitter disappointment not to have been featured.

Jay Pather, Artistic Committee Chairman, cut to the quick when summing up the Festival: ‘What we have is a metaphor for what is fast becoming a national landscape. A microcosm of what is possible. (The fest could have featured) greater contradictions, larger reflections of innovation, the gravitas of experienced artists juxtaposed with the risk and freshness of (several) young artists ...the true mettle of our nation would be more wholly reflected’.

The Festival however, with reportedly solid attendance figures, was a success, a gala of culture in its diversity. And a reminder too, of how sharing culture builds bridges.

We forget that a song can inspire every one of us in an auditorium to stand in solidarity as our spirits soar. Or that we stand together in pain as we bear witness to tragedy. Theatre especially provides the opportunity for an audience to connect emotionally with stories told from the heart, by flesh and blood.

I only hope that funding for next year is solidly in place. It's travesty that the Arts should have to beg for money. I hope that the artists so sorely let down this year will make it back. And I hope that these words might spur readers on to celebrate the wealth of culture that's on the doorstep. Personally, I can't see a more positive way to build up South Africa than to have applause ring out for live performance (ja, let's move away from our TVs), for human endeavour, for the talent so abundant in this land.

And clapping warms the hands too, when it's cold outside.

I'm on twitter @JoanneHichens

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