By Chanté Petersen
Artistic Director, Ismail Mohamed, feels that much of the work presented at the National Arts Festival has lost its ‘political crutch’ in serving as a creative forum for political and social cohesion.
In 1993 then-President Nelson Mandela called on the arts community to "look at the ways in which this torn country can be reconstructed in part through the rich threads of culture".
Although South Africa’s artists seem to be responding loud and clear as 20 years of democracy remains a focal point and comes up strongly on this year’s programme of 4oth annual National Arts Festival (NAF), Mohamed continues his point that much of the work has lost integrity in meeting funder imperative.
“Racial demographics at the festival have become a lot more representative post-1994. This is evident in the case of artists and audiences. Content, however, has become far less politicised. Immediately after 1994, artists lost a “political crutch” that had literally carried their work. In the first four years after democracy, I got bored with South African theatre”, says Mohamed.
He also points out that the appointment of Lulu Xingwana as Minister of Arts and Culture was a further blow to the growth of the arts, “As a minister she was out of her depth. She created and promoted systems that funded “official art” over and above art for art’s sake”.
Inaugurated in 1974, the festival correlates to the early history of the 1820 Settler’s National Monument when British pioneer Colonel John Graham gave life to Grahamstown as a military headquarters for British troops and settlers.
Attending the festival for the first time in 1988, Mohamed recognised that the festival held immense power to engage the hearts and minds of South Africans. “I went from performance to performance in awe of just how many South African artists at the time were successfully using the arts to advocate for social change”. At the time its Fringe programme, open to all applicants without pre-selection, was highly politicised and reflected the mood of the 1980s state of emergency.
Mohamed points out that festivals are dynamic when they evolve and respond to their political and social times and art provides us with opportunities for reflection, catharsis and healing. “There is still an immense amount of reflection, catharsis and healing required if we are to continue to strengthen our democracy. As a nation, we are still a long way from fully exploiting the value of the arts”.
In addressing challenges to realising the vision for the next 40 years, he foresees the breaking down of the gatekeeping that still ‘replicates itself like cancer in many South African art organisations’. “For a long while in the arts sector we have been speaking about “accessibility”. If we do not move beyond that and change the dialogue to reflect “inclusion”, we are going to be left behind”.
Over the past number of years, Mohamed moves that we have been and will continue to once again see work that is relevant, challenging and inspiring and artists ‘are reclaiming their political voice’. “The 10 or 11 days of the festival still continue to demonstrate the same kind of powerful possibilities that it had during the apartheid years”.