Pather’s Point: Art Fest Fails To Serve Fairly

Day seven at the National Arts Festival, it’s a cold chilly morning. I would love to say it’s been wonderful except with 4 shows and providing all production and technical on a fifth has been hard. The festival itself has not attracted the crowds. The shows with the major names have done well but for the rest…it’s been a struggle.

I was in a packed house for ‘Blonde Poison’ yesterday in the sharply raked Hangar where all the solo work is playing. Lots of private school groups and predominantly white. Before anyone accuses me of being race obsessed, I bring up the issue because it’s a fact and the demographics have not changed since I first visited in 1994.

As a producer and arts activist, I have to ask certain questions.  Can this festival serve the interests of a developmental state that needs to nurture audiences that are appreciative of a broad range of art forms that affirm the cultures of this country?

national arts festival
Image Credit: Fun for all at music festivals. By Eva Rinaldi (Flickr)

Will it always be middle to upper class audience base given its location and the expense of the travel, accommodation, meals and tickets?

The major shows get a big punt although there was virtually no media or marketing for this festival. In fact I could not get an official programme at the beginning of June…normally you can find one at a Standard bank but this year …I found one at Exclusive Books…. exclusive being the operative word.

So poor marketing and a poor media profile before the festival means that it’s not on the radar of a general public even though artists know about the festival.

There are I think far too many plays, events, art exhibitions, music recitals, seminars. In a country and especially a festival that draws its audiences from almost the same demographic…it is spreading this current audience far too thinly. The fringe needs a stronger curatorial vision that will allow for a greater shaping of the festival. It’s not about keeping artists out but an active and invested commitment to the development of the arts.

Anyone and everyone can be on the fringe and so you find great work side by side with the slack and mediocre.

A national arts festival must serve a larger purpose. Given the huge amount of resources, financial and otherwise deployed to this festival, we must demand a more coherent approach to programming this festival. I want to see a discernible hand guiding this festival to a place where it does manage to attract more diverse audiences that reflect the demographics of this country.

In the Apartheid days, the arts catered to a White elitist audience. So did this festival.  For the NAF to have any significance other than its “national” status in title, it must grapple solidly with its economics. I would love to look at the budget because as I said when I was invited to a short think tank earlier this year, “where you put your money” is a political statement.

I am a little sick of watching the funded and privileged continue to be “funded and privileged”.

Perhaps in another country, a more equal and economically just one, this festival in its present form could have a place among the plethora of other artistic work. In South Africa, its weaknesses are amplified because it is the only festival that all artists could find themselves in.

The student festival is a mess. I brought out 8 students in a production called The Village that had two performances. They had to fly in, hire a vehicle, eat, a place to sleep all for just 2 performances. Every extra day here would have cost in excess of R 6000. So they came, performed twice and left.

A student festival if it must exist should be a place where students interact with other students, forge creative alliances, watch work by their peers and those who have achieved a level of acknowledged excellence.

This, hit and miss exercise compounded by judges (not all of them) whose Ra-Ra approach in their feedback session add insult to injury. If this feedback session which results in awards being awarded must happen, it must happen within an agreed to framework of critical and seasoned analysis.

Student work has already undergone such sessions before they come here so the caliber of the judges, their ability to make an insightful and constructive contribution must be a foregone conclusion.

I have watched in dumbfounded silence some of these exercises and not known whether to laugh or cry.

The role of the Artistic Director that was Ismail Mahomed is no more. Instead a committee of seasoned art professionals representing different art and genre forms will guide the festival. I think this could work, if the guiding vision has been interrogated and if the growth and creative arc of the festival is aligned to a progressive, multi-cultural, fair and far sighted mission. The committee needs to be proportionately representative of the diversity of this country. Colour matters. Culture matters. Your politics do matter.

To ignore the impact of a racially and culturally disproportionate committee is to live in ‘lala’ land.

We need a real commitment to making real change and that will only come with the courage to change the formats, the tried and tested, to nudge audiences forcibly towards appreciating the cultures of the “other”. I would like to see them to also find the work rather than have the work come to them.

To be an artistic director is difficult, often all your choices will be criticized or deemed unworthy for all sorts of reasons. But that is fine, if you are working actively towards molding a path that you can see clearly.

Criticism comes with the territory. In SA being an artistic director or committee with power and money is a much more loaded undertaking. It demands listening, a sensitivity to the issues, the times.

This festival has been rather dull but that maybe because I am feeling rather jaded and cynical. Cowards never made great change. Great change demands courage, big balls and a knowledge that we were not born in this country, at this point in time for nothing. I wish fervently that we could all embrace that.

As an arts activist, I have to ask certain questions: Can this festival serve the interests of a broad range of art forms that affirm the cultures of this country?


About Gita Pather

Gitanjali Pather is the Director of the Wits Theatre at the University of Witwatersrand.

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