ARTISTS TAKE A STAND
As an artists’ protest continued, the SU Artists Week offered a respite for many,
The beginning of this week marked day 41 of the artists’ sit-in at the National Arts Council (NAC) offices in Johannesburg. They refuse to leave until they get detailed answers regarding the mismanagement of the Presidential Employment Stimulus Programme (PESP). Aside from the weekly virtual updates on PESP, which magnify the NAC’s poor communication and administration, the NAC responded with an interdict on the artists’ occupation from the high court. The court ruled in favour of the NAC, but the artists will not move. They maintain their peaceful stance alongside fears of state violence.
“Abahlali base NAC”, as they’ve come to be called, are supported by artists occupying spaces in Bloemfontein and the North West in peaceful protest (Kimberley protestors moved from the offices of the MEC after they came to an agreement). While they take the fight to an unresponsive government and leadership, seeking accountability, other sectors of the arts industry are fighting to keep the performing arts alive and stimulated amid the crippling effects of the Covid-19 pandemic.
The Stellenbosch University (SU) Woordfees is one of SA’s most successful arts festivals. Since 2000 it’s taken place every March in Stellenbosch. In place of what would have been the 2021 festival, the organisers launched the SU Woordfees Artists Week from April 6-11 to inject new hope and create new work.
Artists across the country were invited to hone and refine their skills, ideas and concepts under the guidance of some of the best theatremakers, writers, dancers and storytellers, including Gcina Mhlophe, Andrew Buckland, Sylvaine Strike, Alfred Hinkel, Gregory Maqoma and Jefferson Tshabalala. The result was the Flikker & Flash festival — a pop-up showcase of workshopped productions, lasting between 10 and 15 minutes, in halls and commercial spaces ingeniously transformed into stages, with all Covid-19 protocols followed.
On the impetus behind Artists Week, the director of the SU Woordfees, Saartjie
Botha, said: “The pandemic continues to layer our world with uncertainty. The blank schedules, the closed theatres, the empty festival circuit and the interruption to seasonal work patterns have meant that our artists have lost the structures and routines that provide the rhythm — and mental stability — to their lives and creative processes. There’s no one solution to how we repair our beleaguered arts community, but there is one aspect without which there will be no recovery: we need to help our artists through community.”
Woordfees is predominantly an Afrikaans festival, but it’s making a concerted effort to be inclusive. The diversity of race, artistic disciplines, age and languages that characterised the group of artists included in Artists Week is an exemplary template to carry forward.
The cross-pollination was interesting to watch: veterans working with recent graduates with a fluidity of leadership; artists negotiating space across race in intimate ways; Afrikaans, English, isiXhosa, isiZulu, Setswana and Shona on equal footing and the seamless collision of multiple genres.
The artists were given the freedom to lead with what felt natural, which allowed for a flexible working schedule. The attention and support from the Woordfees team was for Buckland a lovely surprise. “The pandemic has brought into focus how collaboration is a necessary part of creating,” he said.
For Maqoma what stood out were the dichotomies of privilege. “To have the facilities and the capacity to create space for artists to make work is great. The danger is when artists accustomed to that privilege can’t adjust to conditions that ask of them to let go of every privilege to make work that starts from the body and not from what can be provided,” he said. “In the end it was good to see the transformation with what we were able to produce.”
Making art within the new regulations was a challenge. “It was interesting to be aware of the fact that every premise of making work that you know in your body as an archive is partly illegal — from physical contact to warming up,” said Tshabalala.
For Strike, the mask is a muzzle. “To not see the faces of artists in rehearsal and only see their eyes, to see them projecting as much as they can, is awful. It’s been an eyeopener to see how hampered the craft is.
But the week felt like oxygen. To receive oxygen when the masks have been on for this long is the metaphor I choose to live with,” she said.
The event was a respite, a chance for many to come up for air, to create and connect. Despite the challenges, artists soldier on. If anything, the pandemic is forcing them to be strategically militant with the emergence of new artistic bodies like the Sustaining Theatre and Dance Foundation and the Theatre and Dance Alliance, a coalition of organisations, institutions, festivals and companies.
With President Cyril Ramaphosa considering a cabinet reshuffle, what many artists wish for is nothing new — the appointment of someone invested in the arts, who understands that empathy is embedded in artists’ navigation of life and art making.
At time of going to print, Abahlali base NAC were still refusing to move, though they anticipate a forced removal. Veteran actress Lizz Meiring has challenged Nathi Mthethwa, CEO of the NAC and NAC council to be present when the Red Ants evict artists from the NAC offices.