Word Play

Be in­spired at the Stel­len­bosch Woordfees


Ihave lots of great mem­o­ries from last year’s visit to Woordfees, one of the premier Afrikaans cul­tural events.

One is my first taste of koek­sis­ter and malva ice cream. Se­ri­ously lekker. An­other is the Bomb­shel­ter Beast con­cert in the Dy­lan Lewis Sculp­ture Gar­den.

One minute we are am­bling through sub­ur­ban Stel­len­bosch, the next we plunge into hectares of wild na­ture. In­tense aro­mas of buchu and erica swirl up as we me­an­der through a vast land­scape of fyn­bos. A huge ter­ra­cotta torso lies on a man-made is­land, and ma­jes­tic sculpted beasts are sil­hou­et­ted against the moun­tains.

Sud­denly I hear ul­u­lat­ing. A mu­si­cian sit­ting cross-legged at the edge of a pond filled with wa­ter lilies vi­brates his lips on his trom­bone, and is an­swered by a sax­o­phon­ist wear­ing a conical hat and a multi-coloured one­sie. A woman’s bird calls echo across the val­ley while her com­pan­ion gy­rates against a back­ground of wild olive trees. An opera singer strides through the gath­er­ing and launches into an aria.

Any pre­con­cep­tions you might have about cul­tural iden­tity are chal­lenged at this an­nual im­mer­sion in writ­ten, vis­ual and per­form­ing arts – a cel­e­bra­tion of the word in all its ex­pres­sions.

“Woordfees started as a po­etry fes­ti­val and grew or­gan­i­cally,” says fes­ti­val di­rec­tor Saartjie Botha. With the fre­netic ac­tiv­ity of the fes­ti­val ta­per­ing off, we are chat­ting at the op­er­a­tions cen­tre in Van Ryn­eveld Street, where gilt mir­rors, oil paint­ings and flow­ery drapes are in­ter­spersed with over­flow­ing card­board boxes and white­boards scrib­bled with to-do lists.

“We’re not a hol­i­day fes­ti­val, as the univer­sity and schools con­tinue to func­tion. There’s a cer­tain se­ri­ous­ness in what we do

a third of the events re­volve around books and dis­course. About 70 per cent of Woordfees is Afrikaans, with a large English theatre

com­po­nent. In­ter­na­tional in­put is mainly Dutch and Flem­ish, with British and Ger­man too. We have all forms of artis­tic ex­pres­sion and want to be a fes­ti­val of ex­cel­lence – the best in artis­tic in­tegrity.”

The old­est town in the coun­try (the city of Cape Town is the old­est set­tle­ment) pro­vides the per­fect back­drop to this cul­tural im­mer­sion. The oak-lined streets are packed with na­tional mon­u­ments, where creak­ing wooden stair­cases lead to vast halls lit by chan­de­liers. These old build­ings, as well as restau­rants, pubs, gar­dens and tents evolve into im­pro­vised art the­atres, gal­leries and con­cert venues, and host ev­ery­thing from jazz and stand-up com­edy to book launches and wine-tast­ings.

For me, vis­ual art is a high­light, and Alex Hamil­ton, cu­ra­tor of vis­ual arts, has gath­ered 80 es­tab­lished and rel­a­tively un­known artists, work­ing in me­dia from clay to up­cy­cled metal. I am drawn to the rather melan­choly but beau­ti­ful work of fes­ti­val artist Emma Willemse’s Archiv­ing Loss and Long­ing that shares the pain of los­ing one’s home. It took Emma five years to cre­ate her in­stal­la­tion, which in­cludes 101 hand­made artists’ books filled with draw­ings, prints and col­lages, with cov­ers made from par­quet floor­ing.

Wilna Stry­dom from Pre­to­ria shows lus­trous gold, ce­ramic ves­sels, while print­maker Thina Dube cre­ates paper em­bed­ded with plant ma­te­rial and string, which he uses as a base for his draw­ing and paint­ing.

As I stroll past mu­si­cians strum­ming on street cor­ners, I mar­vel at how ev­ery spare nook and cranny is used. Cov­ered ve­ran­das are trans­formed into sec­ond-hand book­stalls, while pop-up food, gin and wine stalls mush­room in park­ing lots. When you tire of one show there is al­ways a friendly, shut­tle-bus driver ready to whisk you to an­other fes­ti­val hub, and more peo­ple to chat to. “I’m a per­son per­son,” one en­thu­si­as­tic driver as­sures me as he whizzes me off to yet an­other lo­ca­tion pul­sat­ing with colour and mu­sic.

What­ever your pas­sion, you are sure to meet like-minded en­thu­si­asts. One is Is­abel Groes­beek, for­merly a Hu­man Sciences Re­search Coun­cil re­searcher who now free­lances in ge­neal­ogy. She is based in the gor­geous baroque The­o­log­i­cal Sem­i­nary build­ing at Stel­len­bosch Univer­sity, packed with ex­hibits on fam­ily his­to­ries. “It’s part of the cul­ture to trace your his­tory and tell your fam­ily sto­ries,” says Is­abel.

I also peek into a hall where loads of food­ies are seated at tres­tle tables, sam­pling rich, red Shi­raz paired with game, in the com­pany of cel­e­brated chef Ber­tus Bas­son. Pro­fes­sor Louw Hoff­man, a meat sci­en­tist at Stel­len­bosch Univer­sity, tells me, “Game meat is lo­cal, and lo­cal is lekker – it’s part of our her­itage. Peo­ple want to go back to their roots, and bil­tong, game meat and wine are so much part of this.”

You can also snug­gle up to ro­mance writer Kris­tel Loots over a high tea, or dis­cuss the se­crets of spices with Laysa Jabaar, au­thor of Bo-Kaap Kitchen. And if you just wanted a breather and to put your feet up, all the prize-win­ning movies from the Sil­w­erskermfees are on show, as well as short films and doc­u­men­taries.

Of course, wel­com­ing all these vis­i­tors helps sup­port coun­try busi­nesses. “We’re kept busy sort­ing out ac­com­mo­da­tion for peo­ple stay­ing in bed and break­fasts and ho­tels, as well as self-ca­ter­ing and back­pack­ers,” says Shan­tal Wol­low, who han­dles vis­i­tor li­ai­son at Stel­len­bosch Wine Routes.

Many vis­i­tors sup­port the well-stocked art and craft gal­leries, home­grown cloth­ing brands and mu­si­cians sell­ing CDs. I am par­tic­u­larly taken with Philippa Louw’s dresses at Green Sleeves Vin­tage Cloth­ing, while Petri van Niek­erk, as­sis­tant at Lo­cal Works craft out­let, shows me beau­ti­ful hand­crafted bead­work, jew­ellery and em­broi­dery.

The fes­ti­val also goes be­yond restau­rants and recre­ation to drive trans­for­ma­tion, ed­u­ca­tion and in­te­gra­tion with un­der-re­sourced com­mu­ni­ties. Saartjie tells me that the Words Open Worlds (WOW) project spans lan­guage, lit­er­a­ture and the arts, of­fer­ing ev­ery­thing from de­bat­ing and cre­ative writ­ing for learn­ers, to work­shops on ra­dio scripts and pro­duc­ing school news­pa­pers.

“Our spell­ing com­pe­ti­tion is the largest in the coun­try and reaches out to all nine prov­inces. It’s al­most im­pos­si­ble to imag­ine how well the kids learn lan­guage skills and gain con­fi­dence in front of peo­ple,” says Saartjie.

For me, the fes­ti­val is an eye-opener, the chance to im­merse my­self in thought­pro­vok­ing art, pore over old books and just chill in beau­ti­ful sur­round­ings. It at­tracts fas­ci­nat­ing peo­ple, drawn from all cor­ners of the coun­try to show­case or share in our his­tory and cre­ativ­ity, ready to ex­plore new ways of see­ing words and the world.

Bomb­shel­ter Beast mu­si­cians per­form at the Dy­lan Lewis sculp­ture gar­den dur­ing the 2018 fes­ti­val.

ABOVE: Fes­ti­val-go­ers can tour the ex­tra­or­di­nary Dy­lan Lewis Sculp­ture Gar­den on the out­skirts of Stel­len­bosch.LEFT: Alex Hamil­ton, cu­ra­tor of the 2018 Vis­ual Arts pro­gramme.ABOVE RIGHT: Woordfees and Words Open Worlds di­rec­tor Saartjie Botha. RIGHT: Le­peltjie Vol Snare(A Spoon­ful of Strings) will cel­e­brate stringed in­stru­ments such as the tin vi­olin, San bow and banjo at this year’s fes­ti­val.BELOW RIGHT: Chef Ber­tus Bas­son and meat sci­en­tist Pro­fes­sor Louw Hoff­man at a game and red-wine pair­ing.

ABOVE: Movie buffs can in­dulge in ev­ery­thing from lo­cal hits to in­ter­na­tional doc­u­men­taries.ABOVE RIGHT: Lo­cal mu­sic groups such as Or­welling­ton liven up the streets of Stel­len­bosch. BELOW: Sec­ond-hand book stalls of­fer hours of plea­sur­able brows­ing. BOT­TOM LEFT: Pop-up eater­ies pro­vide plenty of yummy food: Nico Pi­etersen and Wy­cliff Lu­pani of Eat Greek at Woordfees 2018. BOT­TOM RIGHT: Vis­ual arts make up a pop­u­lar com­po­nent of the Woordfees pro­gramme.

LEFT: The Con­ser­va­to­rium is the fo­cus of the mu­sic cal­en­dar. Mu­sic stu­dent Gina Ni­cholas and Fiona Dreyer, sell CDs at the 2018 Clas­sic­s4U event. ABOVE: Grand old build­ings, beau­ti­fully pre­served, make Stel­len­bosch a de­light to visit.

LEFT: Klein­mond artist-ce­ram­i­cist Belinda Leontsi­nis, one of many vis­i­tors at Woordfees 2018. What­ever your cul­tural tastes, Woordfees has a jam-packed cal­en­dar. RIGHT: Petri van Niek­erk out­side Lo­calWorks craft and de­sign out­let, one of many sup­ported by Woordfees vis­i­tors.

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