Grahamstown gears up for another National Arts Festival

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Ismail Mahomed

As Grahamstown prepares itself for another festival with you at the helm, does it get easier with each cycle to plan and execute?

The arts sector is very dynamic. It constantly changes. It has to respond to funding challenges, innovations and the ever-inspiring creativity of our artists. As a result, the job of a festival director can never be routine-based. While administrative systems can be simplified, a festival director who wants to be on top of the ball has to embrace the challenges that each new festival must bring. I prefer waking up in the morning knowing that each new day is going to bring a new set of rules, a new set of players and a new set of ideas. If it got simpler each day I would become bored and probably have more fun working as a striptease artist.

Year in and year out you seem to keep your sense of humour intact. How important is this quality in your job?
I am cynical about the state of the arts in this country. One has to be! The arts define who we are as a nation. It reflects our hopes, dreams and aspirations. It heals us from our brutalised past. Artists are at the forefront of political activism and social change. The arts have a positive ripple effect on a massive hospitality and service industry. Yet, in the economic food chain, our government positions our artists at the lowest rung of the economy. Our government treats its artists like Apple computers trying to function in a paraffin-generated spaza shop. That is laughable! I have no option but to maintain a sense of humour to stay sane as the comic book around us prepares to explode.

Mlu Zondi (Credit: Val Adamson)

In a personal capacity, you have quite a strong presence on Facebook. It is very interesting to read your "behind-the-scenes" reflections on the arts in general and your planning surrounding the National Arts Festival. Is this intentional? Do you feel it contributes to creating a year-long arts / National Festival buzz?

Facebook is the new greenroom for the arts community. It's where we come to gossip, stab one another in the back, find out who is moving up the ladder and just who was lucky enough to scoop funding. Because my Facebook page is my uncensored voice, it does give me the power to provoke, share information, criticise and open up conversations. I'm disappointed that with freedom of expression enshrined in our constitution, the "funding noose" has scared off artists from speaking out. There is a fear that drives artists to become politically correct. I enjoy being politically incorrect, particularly if I know that the choices that I've made are not in conflict with my conscience. In general, international festival directors are not afraid to speak their minds. If we want to attract the most provocative, the most cutting edge, the most fearless artists then we need to have the courage to put ourselves at risk. I'm encouraged by the values of the National Arts Festival and the support of my board of directors. They encourage me to engage with my various constituencies throughout the year in ways that connect me with my constituencies. The fact that many of these people engage with my thoughts on Facebook is helpful in the way that I start now to think about next year's festival.

An e-mail exchange between you and an artist regarding her production not being accepted for the Main programme at this year's festival went public a couple of months ago. How often do you have to deal with situations such as this, and why is it important for others in the industry to also know about it?

This was an isolated incident. The artist wrote an "open letter" inspired by a rumour to justify a matter at which she felt aggrieved. As a result she received an open reply. There are two important lessons that everyone could learn from that experience. Firstly, it is not wise to depend on a rumour mill for information when wanting to engage with me. Secondly, the risk of writing an open letter to me comes with the risk of receiving an open reply from me. I engage with artists, administrators, media, policy-makers and audiences with the same level of frankness. Our industry can't afford to have us all fighting with one another. We all need to be honest with one another to grow the industry, but also respectful of one another. I am a firm believer that no artist has a right to entitlement. Everything in life comes with rules and hard work. There were many credibly good artists that made up the bouquet of proposals from which we had to make a selection. In this particular case the artist and I were not able to reach consensus on contractual matters. The whole incident is really water under the bridge. I'd like to meet with the artist at some point for coffee to discuss the possibilities of still being able to work together, because I have an enormous amount of respect for the artist and her work. I am confident that both the artist and I have the integrity to reach out to each other beyond this unpleasant incident.

Steven Cohen and Nomsa Dhlamini in The Cradle of Humankind (Credit: Alain Monot)

Getting back to this year's festival, what are some of the highlights/focus points that festival-goers can look forward to?

The French Season in South Africa will be launched at the festival this year. This is a unique celebration of nine outstanding productions from France all gathered together in Grahamstown. Steven Cohen, who is celebrated at international festivals, will perform for the first time in Grahamstown. Three world premieres and one which includes South Africa's most celebrated playwright, Athol Fugard, will be staged in Grahamstown. Contemporary dance lovers will see a programme that's almost trebled in size and quality. We will reap the fruits of our legacy-investment programmes this year by seeing one of our sponsors multiply their sponsorship for a Grahamstown project almost tenfold. Then there is the absolute highlight each year, which is about what the five Standard Bank Young Artists will present. More than just shows and exhibitions, the festival is directed to offer a holistic experience that stimulates body, mind and soul.

During our interview with you before last year's festival you mentioned that you get excited about trends rather than individual productions. Which trends excite you about this year's festival?

There are several new directions in our programming this year. A lot of these are inspired by our artists and our audiences. A family-focused venue at this year's festival is a move in the positive direction. We need to encourage more families to embrace the arts as a family lifestyle choice. The increase in site-specific performance art reflects the changing ways in which artists are engaging with both sites and genres. There is an increasing blurring of the divisions that separate one genre from another. Intersectionality and interconnectivity between genres is an ever-increasing dialogue between artists. I think the programme is a wonderful window into South Africa's artistic trendsetters and our cultural legends.

Part of the French Season at this year's National Arts Festival

Lastly, what makes the National Arts Festival stand out above any other arts festival in the country?

The festival creates many intersecting bridges between artists, audiences, managements, development agencies, funders, policymakers, thought leaders and ordinary fun seekers. It is the one place in South Africa where for eleven days so many diverse people with diverse values, beliefs, principles, hopes and fears can come together to engage one another's minds and delve into one another's souls. In the creative industries we constantly talk about how the arts mirror our society. The festival goes beyond just reflecting like a mirror. It provides a platform for reflexes as well. In a country such as ours with so many contested issues that arise from the way we are still trying to build a united nation, the National Arts Festival becomes a tonic for strength, a catalyst to move us forward and an appetiser that allows us to taste what our country can really become if we all embrace one another beyond those eleven days.

To view this year's National Arts Festival programme, or to book tickets, please visit

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