Laughter will save South Africa. The Grahamstown Arts Festival

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The National Arts Festival took place in the city of Grahamstown, South Africa, between the 2nd and the 12th of July. Visual arts, live performances and crafts from the entire continent transformed the small town into the capital of culture of South Africa.

41 years after the first edition of the National Arts Festival, the city of Grahamstown proved once more to be the centre of the cultural growth in the country. The small municipality, located in the inland of the Eastern Cape Province, is best known as a college town thanks to Rhodes University, where the intellectuals of tomorrow are bred. It is under the wing of the University, and with the support of the Department of Arts and Culture of the Republic of South Africa, that the Festival grew over the years to become the biggest and most important appointment for African artists and aficionados.  This year’s edition of the Festival was held between the 2nd and the 12th of June.

Creative minds and performers from the five continents contributed to the diversity of the event and stimulated the dialogue about arts. Local students and professionals exhibited their best pieces of work in the numerous galleries, while hundreds of plays and dances of the Eastern Cape were performed at the City Hall, at Rhodes Theatre and inside Saint Andrew’s College. The Village Green Fair hosted thousands of stands, targeted daily by a mass of people in search of the finest crafts, traditional attires and delicious treats of game meat. World renowned companies and solo artists staged brilliant puppet shows in the city parks. In the local cinemas, the Magna Carta Film Festival displayed a broad selection of independent movies.

The main feature of the 41st edition of the Festival was Satire. “Reinvention”, spoke Ayanda Mjekula, Chairman of the Festival’s Board, “is critical to an institution such as ours, as is constant reflection and innovation”. Nothing can enhance freedom of speech and renovation better than Satire, which has the power to poke institutions and people’s common sense. Among the many comedians, TV star Conrad Koch and his ventriloquist puppet Chester Missing entertained the audience discussing the importance of irony in politics in a sold-out event in the Blue Theatre. Chester Missing has become popular for his cunning interviews with politicians from across Southern Africa.

The Festival’s Board emphasized the importance in Southern Africa of freedom of speech, as stated in the Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and in Section 16 of the Constitution of the Republic of South Africa, which reads: “Everyone has the right to freedom of expression, which includes […] freedom of artistic creativity”. A showcase of cartoons, called “Freedom of Expression in Broad Strokes”, portrayed the international fight for the rights of satirists. Featuring, artists of the likes of Jeremy Nell (Vodacom journalist of the year 2011, RSA), Roar Hagen (NOR), Aristides E. Guerrero (CUB), Mihau Ignat (ROM), Michael De Adder (CAN) and Tjeerd Royaards (NDL). Royaards’ presence in the Festival represented an important opportunity for the local emerging artists, as a commission from The Hague, Netherlands, is scouting for talents in South Africa.

The Rhodes Fine Art Student Exhibition.

One of the stands of the Village Green Fair. Traditional accessories and jewellery are on display.

Jugglers and acrobats charm the youngest visitors of the Village Green Fair.

Body painting is a simple way for children to attract the attention of the tourists and earn pocket money.

A similar creative revolution has had major effects in Nigerian fast growing tertiary industry. Considering that the two countries are likely to become the two major powers of the continent, it is relieving to believe that the fight for the political supremacy in Africa will not be fought on a battle field, but on a stage and over a cinema screen.

During the ten days of the event, the whole city of Grahamstown was caught in the festive spirit. Street stands everywhere sold food and crafts. Children improvised curious body painting and dances on the sidewalks of the main alleys. In the local bars and restaurants the discussions about art and philosophy continued until late night, at the sound of the most sophisticated jazz classics.

Jazz accompanied the rhythm of traditional music and merged with the sounds of Africa in a spectacular edition of the Standard Bank Jazz Festival. Carrying out such exquisite fusion were on stage Carlo Mombelli, an American Bass player and composer, and a unique collaboration of long-time performers Dave Reynolds and Pops Mohamed, who took the breath away with the sounds of steelpan, finger piano and bow harp. The festival ended in an artistic climax with the “Tuku sounds” by Zimbabwean Oliver Mtukudzi, guest star of the event.

Innovation is the main intent of the Festival, which rejects the obvious and the stereotypical. Not by chance the area of Grahamstown and Bhisho, Capital of the Eastern Cape, has been since colonial times the cradle of free-thinking and liberalism in the country. The growth of artistic expressions, as portrayed in the National Arts Festival, is also a positive symptom for the increasing economic power of South Africa. No financial or political boom can happen without an emphasis on the identity of a country and its cultural heritage. Thanks to its privileged position in the continent, the Republic of South Africa has the potential of becoming the breeding nest of think tanks and artistic movements with standards that few other countries can achieve.

A similar creative revolution has had major effects in Nigerian fast growing tertiary industry. Considering that the two countries are likely to become the two major powers of the continent, it is relieving to believe that the fight for the political supremacy in Africa will not be fought on a battle field, but on a stage and over a cinema screen.

This article was written by ALESSANDRO PARODI

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About Author

Born in Zimbabwe and living in South Africa, Miriro is a seasoned publishing editor and writer, having worked with leading brands in investment, business leadership and entrepreneurship. Passionate about Africa’s development, Miriro is also a dynamic marketing consultant with 10 years experience working with startups and large multinational corporations. With a heart for travel, Miriro spends her time discovering the nooks of crannies of Africa’s hidden gems, taking the roads less travelled, meeting the beautiful people and enjoying their food and culture. She enjoys tackling complex strategic challenges in the passion-to-entrepreneurship pipeline, particularly focused on the implications of 4th Industrial Revolution and workforce automation on Africa's travel and tourism industry. Miriro is currently the Managing Editor of Nomad Africa magazine.

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