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Celebrating the Arts - the National Art Festival in Grahamstown

Updated on April 29, 2019
Johan Smulders profile image

Johan Smulders has a . B.A, B.ED and M.A in Education, Theology and Counselling. Works as an evangelist and counsellor.

1820 Settlers Monument
1820 Settlers Monument | Source
Children's Theatre in the park
Children's Theatre in the park | Source
Dancing at the free Sundowner Concert, every evening at 17.00
Dancing at the free Sundowner Concert, every evening at 17.00 | Source
Open time in evenings
Open time in evenings | Source
Display at one of many Art Exhibitions
Display at one of many Art Exhibitions | Source
Camping is an accommodation option
Camping is an accommodation option | Source
Sunset from the campsite at P J Olivier School fields
Sunset from the campsite at P J Olivier School fields | Source

The National Arts Festival

Somewhere in a tribal village near Lusikisiki, a group of Xhosa youth are practising a dance routine under the eagle eye of an older girl because this year they have booked a place in the fringe programme at the National Arts Festival. Their local chief has encouraged them to do so and has raised sponsorship for them to travel to the festival. They will travel by taxi, one owned by one of the children’s father and stay in the P J Olivier School Hostel for 5 nights. Three performances have been scheduled at the P J Olivier Hall and they will put on their dance/theatre performance telling the story of a young girl leaving home to go to the girl’s school in Gauteng where she has received a scholarship. Her friends are glad for her but also sad that she is leaving. The play was written by Sia Nyona who is a senior at the local school in Luzikiziki and was encouraged by her teacher to write the play.

In a room in Rondebosch, Cape Town, a young boy is busy practicing cello. He is part of the Rondebosch High School orchestra and needs to fine tune his skills as he will be travelling to Grahamstown in the July holidays to play in the main Youth Music Programme on the 30th of June. His school will be joining the Stirling High School from East London, in a big band presentation. During the Festival he, with other young musicians from all over South Africa, will be attending training and auditions and he is hoping to be selected for the National Schools Big band that will be performing on the 1st July in the Main Auditorium. This may be a stepping stone for him towards a career in one of the orchestras in South Africa.

The arts beat in the hearts of so many people in the world. It inspires creativity and thinking, it motivates change and thinking, it moves people to higher ideals and thoughts. So, with the National Arts Festival in Makhando (Grahamstown), from the 27 June to 7 July, this rather sleepy city will become again a hub of activity. Last year over 450 shows were presented during the festival, some drawing big crowds and others presenting aspiring artists simply with an opportunity to improve their skills. As the “fesinos” (people who attend the festival) arrive at the festival, they are amazed at the variety of presentations ranging from theatre to dance, from photography to film, from magic to comedy, from vocal music to orchestras. Everyone is spoilt for choice. A large selection of booths in the festival grounds and in the streets, offer creative objects for sale, from clothing to jewellery, from food to drinks and from art works to health products.

Being an artist is a fulfilling life but often does not put food on the table and so the National Arts Festival gives artists an opportunity to flex their financial muscles. Some will do well with full houses bringing in a good return, while others will have spent a lot of money with no return, such is the reality of life in the art world.

The main programme presents some 50 specially selected performances by international and local well known artists. The so called “fringe” presents another 400 or so presentations. Every nook and cranny in Grahamstown is put to use. Big halls, small halls, auditoriums and even courtyards are used, depending on the size of the show and the expected audience. For 10 days the small city becomes a throbbing hub of music, drama and art. For the religious the “Spirit Fest” entertains, challenges and inspires. The Jazz programme features international and local jazz musicians at their own specially designated part of the City.

Accommodation is available in many different ways, from game farms and hotels to school hostels depending on your budget. I prefer to camp and spend more of my budget on shows and so I use the P J Olivier sports fields that offer camping at a very reasonable price. The sunsets from this venue are often spectacular.

For me the festival is an opportunity to challenge my thinking and live for a few days in a different world, the world of wonder and amazement, a world of thinking and being challenged to re-evaluate my life. But it also gives me a chance to contribute to the lives of the many artists, and even service providers who benefit from these ten days of opportunity. While it costs me something in travel, accommodation and the tickets I choose to buy, it brings me a real return in living in the art world for a couple of days, not as an artist but as a participator.

As I’ll lie in my tent late at night I will hear the music still coming from the city below and meditate on the shows I attended on the day and those I intend to still support. Last year the show that perhaps moved me most was one called The Revelon Girl, a dramatic play set in the little town of Aberfan, Wales, where the whole school had been wiped out in a landslide in 1966. It tells the story of a group of bereaved mothers who meet every week to talk, cry and even laugh as they deal with their loss. The play deals with the challenges of human greed and grief. It was a show that was sold out in Edinburgh in 2018 and somehow now made its way into the Grahamstown fringe.

While I am just a spectator at the festival, at the same time I am involved emotionally and financially in supporting art. In attending the dance show that will be put on by the young people from Lusikisiki I will be making a contribution to their efforts.They may only have a few spectators at their show but will appreciate my applause and me buying a ticket. They will smile from ear to ear because someone watched and appreciated their baby footsteps into the world of performing art. That makes it all worthwhile.


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