Creating the worlds we want: The Vrystaat Kunstefees and cultural self-agency in global networks

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Deus::ex::machina, Louise Coetzer, Snelstroom, 2020

In these difficult times, the festival has emerged like a phoenix from the ashes of the lockdown to tackle the difficult task of continuing our industry. It offers artists hope and, above all, work.
- Cornelia Faasen, CEO, National Afrikaans Theatre Initiative (NATi)

TheCapeRobyn: “I count over 25 people involved on this project. That is a lot of people who got paid during the COVID lockdown?”
Louise Coetzer: “Yes, that’s one of the reasons we decided to push a project of this size and of such an interdisciplinary nature, so it could spread the job creation across many sectors. As we are an NPO, job creation within the arts industry is our major focus, and we are grateful to the funders who enabled this project, [such as] … Vrystaat Kunstefees …, allowing Darkroom Contemporary to employ so many professionals on this project during this time.”
- Deux: ex: machina, Snelstroom, 2020


2020 was a challenging, disruptive, deeply painful and traumatic year, but also a tremendously innovative, eye-opening year for cultures globally. Despite what the COVID-19 lockdown threw our way, at the Vrystaat Arts Festival we are incredibly proud of what we were able to achieve in such uncertain times.

We have had continued support from donors and sponsors, such as Naspers, the University of the Free State (UFS), Netwerk24, the Dagbreek Trust, the embassy of the Netherlands in Pretoria, NATi, kykNET, the Vrystaat Kunstetrust, the LW Hiemstra Trust, the Flemish government, the Italian Cultural Institute, BASA and the Rupert Foundation (among many). Because of these, we were able to inject more than R2,5 million (excluding our operational costs) into the arts industry through projects we developed as a result of our online offerings, in a time of phenomenal uncertainty. To support artists and our ecology through creative work was as important as supporting them through charitable funds, such as Tribuo and the Theatre Benevolent Fund (TBF).

In a year when we could not hold a physical festival, we still increased our Instagram following and almost achieved 890 000 online Facebook engagements as a result of our online programming, compared with around 840 000 in 2018 and 1,3 million in 2019, when we held physical festivals. During our online programmes in the second half of 2020, we also increased our Facebook video reach 673% in 62 days, our post-reach by 262% and our post-engagement by 119%. Our website views for 2020 were 52 028, with 84,8% new visitors and 15,2% returning visitors.

Sumari Potgieter and FJ Potgieter from Think Digital, who manage our social media programme, suggest of their strategy in 2020:

“All over our social media platforms, our audiences loved to be entertained and to feel part of something bigger. Without the build-up to a physical festival, we still managed to capture the attention of our loyal audience and keep them engaged with numerous online initiatives. Their positive feedback was the fuel in our tanks. In a time when people were uncertain about the times ahead, they were able to connect to the outside world through art and adapt to an online environment just as quickly as the festival and artists did. With this, we were able to bring a whole new life to an online world as part of the festival.”

As a result of this new reach, we are integrating these online initiatives into the physical festival for 2021, in a week officially allocated by the University of the Free State for the festival in October.

About 2020

The COVID-19 pandemic lockdown significantly changed the business models of many organisations around the world. The Vrystaat Arts Festival similarly adapted, rapidly, to these shifts and presented major online initiatives during 2020.

We initiated national and international arts industry discussions; moved the Vrystaat Literature Festival online through VrySpraak-digitaal; developed a ticketed online Snelstroomsluipkyk theatre and music festival; presented an online Pan-African Creative Exchange (PACE); showcased Free State Arts and Health initiatives; recorded and presented our first ever Vrystaat Klank & Klassik, in partnership with the Odeion School of Music; launched a major online ticketed festival titled Snelstroom, with more than 200 events; held the Crossings arts dance laboratory; and created our first online arts market-shared economy project, the Wolkewinkel.

1 Going online

The process of going online was done incrementally and iteratively with numerous, rapid prototyping tests to help Vrystaat Arts Festival staff develop new skills, and to allow new processes to be optimised. Most importantly, “failures” were welcomed and used as essential stepping stones for learning.

In a time of extreme uncertainty, we had to believe that we could create online opportunities for artists and the communities we served – even if we had little to no experience in doing so. As a team, we decided not to sit back and wait for events to unfold, but to embrace our own agency to create the worlds we wanted to see emerge, on a global stage, linked to a series of networks we had never imagined we could work with previously.

1.1 National and international industry discussions

The Vrystaat Arts Festival, within a week of lockdown, initiated and led South Africa’s first national and international online industry discussions around arts and culture, which continued until we launched our programme offerings in the second half of 2020.

Coordinated by Sarah Lock, the festival’s administrative assistant, and managed by the social media team from Think Digital, the discussions ranged from festival stakeholders around the world exploring options for survival in a lockdown, to local artists looking at their options in this period of trauma.

Sessions included all the major South African festival leaders and international speakers, such as Susanna Seidl-Fox, the programme director for Culture and the Arts at the Salzburg Global Seminar, and Inge Ceustermans, general director of the Festival Academy (an initiative of the European Festivals Association (EFA)). There were also world-renowned luminaries on “telematic” or computer-mediated art, such as Professor Roy Ascott, the father of networked culture, DeTao Master of Technoetic Arts and DeTao Masters Academy Shanghai and founding president of the Planetary Collegium. There were also conversations on arts and mental health with key players in the field, such as David Doyle, CEO of DADAA, the biggest arts and disability organisation in the Asia-Pacific region.

The most critical discussion, I believe, led by the director of capacity building at the Australia Council for the Arts, Kevin du Preez, was an industry conversation on Cultural leadership in times of change, with an international network of arts thinkers. These leaders included Abid Hussain, director of Diversity, Arts Council England (UK); Carolyn Warren, director general of Arts Granting, Canada Council for the Arts; Cornelia Faasen, CEO of the National Afrikaans Theatre Initiative (NATi); David Baile, CEO of the International Society for the Performing Arts (ISPA); Magdalena Moreno, executive director of the International Federation of Arts Councils and Culture Agencies (IFACCA); Michael Orlove, director of State, Regional and Local Partnerships, National Endowment for the Arts (USA); Rosemary Mangope, CEO of the National Arts Council of South Africa (NAC); and Stanley Dlamini, CEO of the eSwatini National Council of Arts and Culture.

Their discussions on empathy, patience and having to think as “beyonders” (people who see beyond their own needs into those of others) spurred us all on to think about how we could shift the festival’s focus to not only surviving, but assisting artists and those in the arts ecology to flourish creatively. As I wrote recently in an article for the Salzburg Global Seminar, What future for festivals?, these industry discussions became our healing, reflection and recovery tools as we learned skills from the sector to develop new online strategies iteratively for 2020 and beyond.

1.2 VrySpraak-digitaal

One of the key initiatives that came out of the learnings we gathered through our industry discussions was the Vrystaat Literature Festival’s online initiative VrySpraak-digitaal, held in September 2020, where local, national and international writers and poets participated in book launches, panel discussions, poetry readings and performances. The programme consisted of 45 online offerings that were systematically released as prerecorded and live conversations.

Award-winning journalist Ruda Landman held her very popular Ruda at 11 series, including Susan Cilliers’s Huis van gruwels: My 16 jaar in die Springs-hel, and Jan-Jan Joubert and Oscar van Heerden on ANC politics and all our futures. International participants included Polish academic and poet Jerzy Koch, the Dutch poet Nachoem Wijnberg – considered one of the Netherlands’ most prominent living poets – and Romanian-Dutch writer and columnist Mira Feticu, among many.

The literature festival coordinator, Corneli van den Berg, regarded the online festival as an ideal opportunity to develop new audience members, both locally and internationally. During the festival, an average of 450 audience members per live Facebook session viewed the free conversations, and the number of children joining the children’s story hour presentations averaged 320 views per presentation. She was surprised and delighted about the reach and interest of the presentations.

Corneli suggests:

“Over the past five years, the Free State Literature Festival has grown from strength to strength. The COVID-19 pandemic has shown that with a little inspiration, a touch of resilience and a lot of perseverance, we can still present a programme of the highest quality, one that supports writers and connects to audiences. I am very proud of what we accomplished.”

The festival also developed its inaugural online First Nations conversation, led by Sylvia Vollenhoven, professor of practice (Humanities Faculty, UJ), and Lee-Ann Tjunypa Buckskin, deputy chair of the Australia Council for the Arts, in partnership with the Australian High Commission in Pretoria and the Programme for Innovation in Artform Development (PIAD) at UFS.

These conversations again highlighted for me the need for other cultural institutions in South Africa to begin the process of engaging First Nations South Africans to develop First Nations protocol for their organisations. In 2021, the Vrystaat Arts Festival cannot still be the only cultural entity in South Africa to follow the protocol of the First Nations people, whose lands we are on.

1.3 Snelstroom

Snelstroom, through its precursor, Snelstroomsluipkyk, coordinated by Michael Garbett, programme manager of the Vrystaat Arts Festival, was the first online arts festival in South Africa to start selling tickets to online shows when, on 16 June 2020, it opened its programme to the general public on the South African Theatre on Demand (SATOD) platform. This was a brand new platform developed specifically for local productions by executive producer Blythe Stuart Linger, and we were keen to support new South African-led initiatives for the sector.

Michael comments:

“Snelstroom provided an opportunity for the festival to have a wider reach not only to audiences, but to artists as well. As a result of our continued online engagements, we connected with new festivals and institutions across the world. 2020 was a blunder in the traditional sense, but a huge opportunity to expand our growth and industry footprint.”

Snelstroom was a unique development for the arts in our country, one we are continuing parallel with our physical festival in 2021. Snelstroom consisted of a curated programme (Hoofstroom) and a fringe (Vrystroom); presented 231 shows (23 international and 208 national), 45 of them debut works; had 14 000 views; and supported 440 artists (71 international and 369 national). In addition, artists participated from as far away as Australia, Brazil, the Caribbean, China, England, Hong Kong, Iran, Italy, Nigeria, the Netherlands, Portugal, USA, Zambia and Zimbabwe.

New partnerships were established with Abuja Fringe (Nigeria), Creative Youth International (UK), the Cairo International Experimental Theatre Festival (Egypt), Barnyard College (USA), CUNY Brooklyn College’s Performance & Interactive Media Arts programme (PIMA-US) and Agencies Alliance (international). A previously hidden, rhizomatic network of partners we had never thought we could connect with, emerged from the COVID lockdown mist right before our eyes.

The total ticket sales for the festival was just over R60 000, with events nominated for several cultural awards. What was great to see was the integration in South Africa of online productions into the traditionally mainstream physical production award categories, in addition to new online categories.

It was particularly heartening to see art awards, such as the kykNET Fiestas and the Naledi Awards, embrace online events as competing equally with traditional physical theatre work in the same categories – a much needed recognition of digital representation. The Vrystaat Arts Festival was very proud to have Alfred Hinkel’s Die dans van my heenkoms, which was on Snelstroom, win the kykNET Fiesta Award for Best Online Production.

However, there is still a gap at present in the fit of the range of work designed for interactive, networked, online spaces and the current category parameters for most South African awards. We need to close this gap in the future to recognise properly these new forms of emerging, telematic work developed by artists in 2020 and beyond.

I suggest that a new category for Interdisciplinary and Live Art (including online media art) would go a long way in addressing the gap that currently exists between what the award categories cover, and what artists have begun to create in networked, real-time, interactive environments.

There are a few projects that stand out for me personally among the numerous quality offerings on the Snelstroom programme. The first is Stories in die wind by Deidré Jantjies. Stories in die wind is Africa’s first First Nations digital animation, supported by the Programme for Innovation in Artform Development (PIAD) through the international First Nations Colloquium. The PIAD, with co-director Angela de Jesus and coordinator Miné Kleynhans, is an initiative of the Vrystaat Kunstefees and the University of the Free State (UFS), funded by the Andrew W Mellon Foundation, and facilitates arts/science and interdisciplinary programmes with communities. Jantjies suggests:

“Stories are a key part of our rich legacy and intangible heritage, ensuring that language, memory, ritual, traditional knowledge systems, and practices are passed on to future generations.”

Stories in die wind is a short web series focusing on a young girl and her purpose in her community, and is based on the Nama story |!hûni //gāres| (The rain flower; Die reënblom) /Nanub !Khas. Jantjies created the series to bridge the generation gap within her communities, using both Nama and Afrikaans subtitles and including interviews in the programme with Ouma Katrina, a Nama-speaking elder.

Stories in die wind, by Deidré Jantjies, 2020

Female-led and female-developed, this was a critical outcome of the work encouraged and discussed by members of the First Nations Colloquium, of which Jantjies is a member. The colloquium brought together, over a four-year period, a gathering of South African, Australian, Maori and USA arts managers, directors, writers, artists and cultural practitioners with the aim of fostering cross-cultural and international collaborations with First Nations peoples and First Nations creative work in annual gatherings in the Free State and the Northern Cape.

In terms of using the networked, real-time capacity of the internet as a medium in the most sophisticated and complex way, I think Deus::ex::machina from Darkroom  Contemporary is one of the stand-out pieces of Snelstroom 2020. Deus::ex::machina is a mixed-reality, real-time, multiplayer game where viewers from anywhere in the world can meet online at specific, programmed times on a shared, live-streamed interface.

From this shared interface, viewers can then choose specific actions for a group of dancers who are performing in real time in a physical space, with headphones, taking instructions based on the collective decisions of the viewers as analysed by the game interface intelligence. As the executive director and chief curator of the Zeitz MOCAA, Koyo Kouoh suggested when I was discussing the project with her, that it is a form of “community-generated choreography”.

Louise Coetzer, the project director, comments:

“This virtual experience is driven by you, the viewer, and demonstrates a real-time exercise in cause and effect, infinite probability and random points of connection. In this extended reality, the viewer controls the dancers through multiple online voting processes, ultimately deciding their own unique experience of the performance as it unfolds via live stream.”

This project facilitates what I have termed in the past as proticipation, where the participants also become the producers of the work. This is the magic of networked, real-time mediums and is what makes this telematically driven work so ground-breaking for South African digital performance practice.

As a continuation of his participatory film and performance events in 2018 (Sig/Sight) and 2019 (The vertical journey) at the Naval Hill Planetarium, media artist Marcus Neustetter created a third experimental performance in 2020, Imaginary futures, developed particularly for the medium with which we all became so familiar in 2020 – Zoom. Artists and participants gathered and created in virtual spaces and on devices in Bloemfontein, across South Africa and around the world.

Neustetter used the films initially shown at the Naval Hill Planetarium, which engaged with “performative films evoking journeys of discovery and wonder”, and brought them into the digital domain. A series of free public online events followed, including a “playful series of acts that sit in the tension between art and science, the urban and the rural, the mythical and the embodied, the past and the future”.

In August, as part of PACE, and in October as part of Snelstroom 2020, participants engaged in various Zoom interventions through a series of live public performative interventions hosted on Zoom using “VR immersions, live sound and film mixing, live drawing, animation, puppetry and performance”.

Having experienced the work on Zoom, I can attest to a type of digital, communal seance that occurred when characters emerged in their domestic settings and in other spaces from where they were streaming their interventions, popping up at various times on the screens in a form of Zoom chat roulette – sometimes distracting, sometimes poetic, sometimes disturbing. Zoom thus became a space for a new type of experimental performative practice, with all its accidents, opportunities and ghosts in the machine.

Another work that took up the challenge of exploring creative practice in online environments was Sense Café, where the process of the artistic engagement and the mode of experimentation became the “product”. Sense Café was an “artist’s laboratory investigating the senses and exploring ways to create multisensory celebrations”.

The artists explain their framework as follows: “How can a type of ‘home theatre’, which harnesses more than audio-visual perception, be facilitated by electronic networks? A test group of artists will attend a series of workshops where they will germinate seeds ‘towards a home theatre’ and serve their sprouts to ‘critics’.”

As a participant, I was sent a list of items to purchase and to prepare prior to the event. I was asked to carry a stick that I picked up from outside with me for a week (I cheated and had it for a day), buy chocolate and marshmallows (which nearly didn’t make it to the session) and prepare a pending yeast concoction, among many other requests.

When I logged on at the specific allocated time, the artists, including Jemma Kahn, Bokang Koatja, Umlilo, Peter Treurnicht, Naledi Majola, Sandi Dlangalala, Ilana Cilliers and Wolf Britz proceeded to create various beautifully crafted online sonic, visual and other interventions to facilitate emotional and sensual connections across the network – including facilitating a raunchy yeast-spawning session.

And it worked. I was hooked. When asked to break my stick – whose narrative story of its intimate relationship to me, I had to share with the group – I nearly broke down. The stick had become a friend, as had happened with the other people’s sticks. Not to mention the marshmallow and chocolate person – whom I had befriended and could not eat either. Well, not till much later.

I hope to see many interesting learnings from this space expand both digitally and out of the network into physical space in the future.

Spaces for such interdisciplinary play without outcomes, laboratories of exploration or collective residencies, whether online or physical, are rare in South Africa. For the South African arts industry to grow, evolve and adapt, we must fund and support many more of these types of process-driven projects, and ditch the absolute need for immediate outcomes. Outcomes will arrive, much later and much more powerfully than we could have imagined previously.

The Vrystaat Arts Festival had already begun exploring these spaces in 2014, with the first of our series of OPENLabs. These OPENLabs were cross-genre, experimental platforms that engaged in critical dialogue about art-making in interdisciplinary fields.

In 2019, we also held the first Pan-African Creative Exchange (PACE+) Dramaturgy Laboratory. The PACE+ lab, led by Dr ’Funmi Adewole, was a transdisciplinary space for professional performing artists, which explored the concept of the “performer-spectator relationship”, what thinking through this concept could do for making, performing, planning and promotions.

We will continue this type of laboratory process intervention in 2021, both digitally and physically.

Moving into 2021, Snelstroom (through both its main, curated Hoofstroom programme and its open Vrystroom fringe programme) has proven to be an unprecedented opportunity for the Vrystaat Arts Festival to engage with creatives from all over the world. We have never before had such a broad system for talking to, presenting and engaging with colleagues from far-flung locations.

As a result, for the curated Hoofstroom online programme for 2021, we appointed an international curator, Sepehr Sharifzadeh Golpaygani, to inform the online curatorial team and bring in new ideas for international partnerships. Sepehr is an independent creative producer, curator, festival maker and researcher who started his career in performing arts as a creative writer, puppeteer, clown and mime. At the age of 24, he cofounded the first International Theatre agency in Iran, aiming to facilitate the cultural exchange between Iran and the international performing arts scene. He is also cofounder of two independent, alternative and artist-led festivals in Iran, the online Reconnect Performance Festival and the Micro Theatre Festival.

As we have facilitated the inclusion of several Iranian theatre works in the 2020 online Vrystroom fringe programme, including Flight no 745 and I put a spell on you, Sepehr’s insights into the international performance world will generate whole new sets of networks for South African and international artists in 2021.

Sepehr comments:

“Being asked to curate an online festival in a country as rich and historical as South Africa is anyone’s dream, and I’m indeed honoured to be tasked with this responsibility. Many of the great festivals of our time rose from the ashes of the world wars; many of the second wave festivals developed from specific social movements and changes from the end of the ’60s. It is important to collect the stories of these COVID lockdown times and leave a trace for our successors, just like our predecessors did. Many festivals moved online as of March 2020 and postponed their real events to 2021, and many conversations have happened regarding the future of festivals and the arts. Once we accept the fact that online performances are not here to replace theatre but to engage people in a new art format, we will be heading one step towards daring to build a future together for the betterment of the performing arts and festivals.”

1.4 The Pan-African Creative Exchange (PACE) Entangled

PACE Entangled, led by London-based, Nigerian-born Nike Jonah and Dutch, New York-based Erwin Maas, and managed by Mark Antony Dobson, was an online initiative of the Vrystaat Arts Festival over a four-day period in August 2020. This biennial arts market/provocation for the interdisciplinary arts in Africa was the first digital platform to showcase selected productions from Africa to national and international presenters, producers, buyers, artists and the general public. Throughout the programme, over 3 040 unique viewers from more than 33 countries participated, with more than 300 delegates from across the world registering and attending the four-day event in person.

Segun Adefila, Crown Troupe of Africa, live, PACE Entangled intervention, Lagos, Nigeria, 2020

Participating artists and presenters from the African continent commented that the PACE Entangled platform felt like it was for them and that it put Africa front and centre in an international context. They mentioned that usually they feel Africa is at the periphery of the international conversation at these kinds of international platforms, and that they have rarely felt so connected to other arts professionals on the continent. PACE Entangled also actively created paid work for various artists (poets, rapporteurs, creative interventionists) to make creative interventions in the online conversation and showcasing.

Mark, who was responsible for putting the online platform together, remembers the period vividly:

“2020 was a year filled with trauma, uncertainty and disbelief. I approached it like an improv challenge. I said yes to everything and chose to see the challenges and failures as an opportunity to learn and grow, at home, locked away from the real world. I know that the Pan-African Exchange happened and that I worked hard on it, but it lives in my mind as a time when I was functioning on pure adrenalin and simply trusting my instincts. Everyone says it went well, and I have vague recollections that it did. I think we will all have collective PTSD in the years to come, but at least we will handle it together.”

A new initiative, the Pan-African Telematic Art Project (PATAP), part of PACE Entangled, was developed and coordinated by the Vrystaat Literature Festival assistant, Thuthukani Ndlovu. PATAP ensured that new works specifically designed for online environments were supported in PACE. Thuthukani implemented the initiative because he believed it was especially important to support the creation of new work in a new medium in a time when the arts industry was hurting, but keen to be innovative and risk-taking.

Thuthukani says of PATAP:

“More artists should take advantage of the current opportunities and technological tools at their disposal to create and promote their work. It’s also imperative for stakeholders within the creative industry to collaborate in ensuring that more people can conveniently access online content and learn about the new technologies. This will then create a more positive perception towards embracing the 4th industrial revolution, and hopefully encourage artists and the government to be more proactive in promoting, consuming and creating telematic work.”

One of the main issues we faced for PACE and PATAP was ensuring that all the participants had fees to cover their data costs. Data costs and access to digital platforms across the digital divide was something we did all in our power to help bridge.

In addition, some of the new conference platforms we used at the time did not support mobile devices, and we learned very quickly that most practitioners in Africa access digital platforms from their mobile phones. Mobile-friendly systems are essential for future digital engagements across the African continent.

1.5 Vrystaat Klank & Klassik

The first edition of Vrystaat Klank & Klassik, a festival celebrating classical music and sound art as an extension of the Vrystaat Arts Festival, was presented online in September 2020. Curated by Elretha Britz and coordinated by Hillétje Möller Bashew, the programme included the OSM Camerata from the Odeion School of Music, the celebrated Odeion String Quartet with “Hidden colours of the Free State”, soprano Magdalene Minnaar together with pianist Maryke Johnson with a programme called From Schubert to Schönberg, and Anneke Lamont with Diabelli Variations, Op 120.

Narratives written by well-known Bloemfontein authors, including Nàomi Morgan, Zee Bashew, Ilne Fourie and Jaco Jacobs, were presented by outstanding Free State actors, including Jefferson J Dirks-Korkee, Gerben Kamper, Hillétje Möller Bashew and Nosana Sondiyazi, as introductions to each piece. Each narrative was inspired by the music to follow and set the ambience of the show.

The performances were pre-recorded in Bloemfontein and will be broadcast on kykNET in the second half of 2021. The Odeion String Quartet was nominated for a Fiësta for “Hidden colours of the Free State”, which was a great honour for the festival team, who are now planning a second physical and digital hybrid event.

Elretha comments:

“Classical music is a niche genre not always easy to market. However, if one does not make an effort to keep it going, people will never be exposed to this timeless music. The Rupert Foundation and the Arts Trust in the Free State were valuable partners in the first ever Vrystaat Klank & Klassik. With it now in its second year, we will reach new heights when we present it again in November 2021.”

1.6 Free State Arts and Health

The Free State Arts and Health (FSAH) programme is a bilateral partnership initiative of the Vrystaat Arts Festival and DADAA, supported by the Australia Council for the Arts and the Andrew W Mellon Foundation through PIAD.

FSAH, with mentor David Doyle, CEO of DADAA, is a pioneering arts and health initiative operating in central South Africa, supporting and designing community-centred intermediations by arts workers with the aim of positively impacting on the health and well-being of the communities with whom they work. Using the arts, FSAH engages with communities in arts practices and projects that address key health aspirations, understanding that good health – including social, physical and mental health – is imperative in the creation of cohesive societies.

In 2020, FSAH was part of the world-renowned Ars Electronica festival through their Keplar’s Garden programme. Ars Electronica suggested:

“Lockdown … forced communities to go online both to create and to access art. This has led to new developments for African artists in a highly networked, global environment. However, the divide between those who have access to data and technology and those who don’t has hindered many and become a new barrier.”

The Vrystaat Arts Festival did not let this divide be a barrier to our work. Rea Mokone, programme manager for FSAH, set out almost immediately to build, by herself, a 3D gallery in Mozilla Hubs and imported digitised prints she had been working on with First Nations communities in Platfontein, near Kimberley in the Northern Cape.

Rea comments:

“Throughout my journey, as part of this festival and mostly in my role within FSAH, I have borne witness to how much the festival has evolved, and it is this constant ability to evolve that has enabled us to react in ways that have been beneficial to art practitioners and to the communities we work with. I am proud to have been part of the evolution of the festival, and I look forward to seeing how we can learn and evolve further.”

The works titled Platfontein print portfolio I & II, in a three-dimensional virtual space in Mozilla Hubs, were the product of the !Xun and Khwe First Nations people’s community art and cultural development process and contributed to the resumption of community pride and cultural agency among the participating artists.

For many of the project participants, it was the first time that they had heard the stories from their elders, which these artworks share with us. And, in a digital space, they are even more accessible now than we could ever previously have imagined.

1.7 Crossings

Crossings, developed and managed by the coordinator of the dance programmes of the Vrystaat Arts Festival, Georgina Thomson, created an opportunity for six young artists to connect and cross over into each other’s spaces via the internet and in the studio, with the intention of creating new works.

Crossings challenged the participants to bring their concepts and ideas to each other both online (to start with) and in studios (in the second session) to work towards creating a 20-minute innovative work. Choreographers included Thami Majela, Sizakele Mdi and Motlatsi Khotle, with composers Chesney Palmer, Dumelang Tsepo and Tsholofelo Tshikare. The two facilitators were Vincent Sekwati Mantsoe (France-based South African choreographer) and Musa Hlatshwayo (Durban).

From Crossings, Thomson developed the New Dance programme for 2021 to present commissioned/new works from South African contemporary dance choreographers, including an online Dance on Film programme. The programme will include established and young choreographers and a series of master classes during the festival, as well as conversations to discuss the contemporary dance scene.

1.8 Wolkewinkel

The Wolkewinkel, coordinated by Isabel Lock with assistance from Atie Kamper and Hanco Kamper, is the Vrystaat Arts Festival’s first online arts market. Functioning parallel to the physical arts market on the campus of the University of the Free State, the Wolkewinkel is an online, shared economy project that assists those making bespoke arts and crafts products in South Africa to have a broader platform to sell their work to both national and international markets.

This has been a complex and ongoing journey, but an enormous milestone in the festival’s digital evolution, where we can now offer customers, patrons and many new supporters an online platform to extend what they would usually only sell and buy in a physical space into a digital space. The Wolkewinkel, similarly to the Vrystaat Kunstefees’s arts market, promotes only high quality work assessed and approved by the skilled curator of the market.

We have started very small, and the development of this platform will be ongoing, to adapt and adjust to changes in the industry. As it is a long-term project, we will watch the outcomes of these online dropshipping processes over the next few years, to assist those crafting handmade South African goods.

2 International reach and recognition

Thanks to operational support from Naspers, the University of the Free State and many more project and initiative sponsors, the Vrystaat Arts Festival was able to create opportunities for South African artists that provided new, hitherto unimagined international recognition.

One of the first successes was the Cairo International Festival for Experimental Theatre awarding Bloemfontein singer Liv Die and Vukallective first prize in the Lockdown Theatre category for work they created in the Free State with support from the Vrystaat Arts Festival and NATi.

The second international achievement, in working with our partner the Fak’ugesi African Digital Innovation Festival in Johannesburg, was the selection of three Snelstroom works in the world-renowned Ars Electronica arts festival in Linz, Austria. These works from PATAP were Louise Coetzer’s interactive media art and dance work Deus::ex::machina; Noluthando Lobese, Lindiwe Matshikiza, Nicola Pilkington and Vanessa Lorenzo’s My many mouths, an immersive 360˚ video; and the FSAH project Ons kom vanof ons stories, part of the Platfontein print portfolio I & II, a 3D online gallery of !Xun and Khwe First Nations prints.

South African visual artworks and photography from the Nexus programme in the Vrystroom festival were also on display physically at the Brighton Fringe festival in the UK in 2020.

Noluthando Lobese, Lindiwe Matshikiza, Nicola Pilkington, Vanessa Lorenzo’s My Many Mouths, an immersive 360˚-video.

Through PACE, artists from South Africa and the rest of Africa were involved in several international award-winning productions; these included The art of facing fear, winner of Best Ensemble and Best Production for the Good Theatre Festival Red Curtain Awards, and nominee for the 2020 Broadway Los Angeles Awards and the Young-Howze Theatre Awards (USA). An invitation also came for PACE participant Fumban Innot Phiri from Malawi to direct work in The Hektomeron at the Marin Sorescu National Theatre Craiova, one of Romania’s biggest theatres; and a new UNESCO-funded South-South performing arts market in the Caribbean developed as a result of PACE.

Also, as director of the Vrystaat Arts Festival, I was invited to participate in the international Salzburg Global Seminar, “What future for festivals?” where I shared the experience of the Vrystaat Arts Festival going online with global arts and festival leaders. A report, including a thought piece by me titled Breathing in the network – new forms of cultural solidarity through online festival engagements, was published, where the ability of various festivals to deliver for artists in times of uncertainty was explored.

The Vrystaat Arts Festival, particularly through PACE, was also invited to participate in the online programmes of the Australian Performing Arts Market (APAM), the Korean Arts Market Seoul (KAMS), the International Society of Performing Arts (ISPA), the Internationale Tanzmesse in Germany, the Culture Funding Watch in Tunisia and NBO MTI in Kenya/Uganda.

3 Celebrating 21 years

In 2021, the Vrystaat Arts Festival celebrates its 21st anniversary. This is a momentous milestone in the history of the festival, which has grown into one of the most internationally engaged events on the African continent. We would particularly like to celebrate creative Free State voices, including works in Afrikaans and Sesotho, for this 21st anniversary.

The Vrystaat Arts Festival has successfully trialled and implemented a new model for Afrikaans-language festivals in an international context, both physically and online, one which incorporates and grows other language groups and cultures, while also maintaining and growing Afrikaans.

In 2021, there will be new costs associated with COVID-19 lockdown regulations and cleaning protocols. In addition, at present, on level 1, only 30% of theatre capacities can be used, with 1,5 metre social distancing rules. Theatre ticket costs will need to be increased but balanced, based on what people can afford in a difficult economic environment, and artists subsidised to offset the increased loss in ticket sales due to limited seats being available.

But we will continue.

We believe, going forward, that diversity – physical and online – is essential for creativity, and even though we may not all share the same cultural identities, we all share the same human values. To thrive in an African context, in partnership with other African cultures, we will move together into the future as part of a Pan-African family, physically and online, in our new, hugely expansive networks.


We learned many, many new skills in 2020 – skills we had never thought we needed or were capable of implementing. But we were.

In summary, some of the learnings we gathered from last year, which we will continue utilising in 2021, include:

  • Continuing to develop and follow First Nations protocol. This is led by First Nations communities both online and physically.
  • Working iteratively. Don’t try and do the big picture programmes immediately. Slowly experiment and scale up once you are more confident.
  • Not expecting perfection. Embrace “failure”. Fail well and fail fast. But continue.
  • Being gentle, being empathetic and being a “beyonder”. Think beyond yourself, about how you can help those around you.
  • Adding to current award categories – not replacing old ones, but adding new ones, such as an award for Live and Interdisciplinary Art. This would go a long way in supporting new sound art, media arts, and interdisciplinary and interactive, real-time, networked practice.
  • Creating a lot more space for laboratories without outcomes, where play is the key deliverable and the process is the product. Without this, South African artforms will not evolve.
  • Going hybrid. Find ways of integrating the digital with the physical.
  • Employing a social media team. They are essential for building programmes online.
  • Finding ways to bridge the big gap between digital and physical inequality. Pay participants for data and make sure you have platforms that are accessible to mobile devices.
  • Networking the hell out of your connections and building new ones through this enormous, expanded digital world. Make sure you build contacts, not succumb to digital fatigue.
  • Creating the worlds you want – not waiting for others to build them. We can all use our own cultural self-agency, tap into our global networks and build these new worlds in partnership with others.


Khoekhoegowab: Vrystaati di Dī//khasib !Gâi!gâisens ge #an!gâs tsī !gôasiba Khoe-San Khoena ra mâ. Nē khoen ge //în aboxan !na /gaisa #goms tsī !hû//arede! kho/gara hâ,nâu khoen !hūb din /khas khami.

Afrikaans: Die Vrystaat Kunstefees erken en respekteer die Khoe-San van die Vrystaat en die diep geestelike verhoudings wat hulle met hul voorouers, hierdie land en sy mense het.

English: The Vrystaat Arts Festival acknowledges and respects the Khoe-San of the Free State, their deep spiritual attachment to their ancestors, and the relationship they have to this country and its people.

Sesotho: Mokete wa tsa Bonono Freistata o ananela le ho hlompha morabe wa Khoe-San wa Freistata, le kamano e tebileng ya semoya eo ba nang le yona le badimo ba bona hammoho le dikamano tseo ba nang le tsona le naha ena le baahi ba yona.

See also:

Press release: Interim director of the Vrystaat Kunstefees

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