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National Art Festival South Africa 2019 - a diary of a Festino

Updated on August 20, 2019
Johan Smulders profile image

Have been attending the National Art Festival on and off for the past 30 years. An avid supported of the arts.

Sun rises at Festival from camp ground
Sun rises at Festival from camp ground | Source
So many shows to choose from
So many shows to choose from | Source
Daily Newspaper for festival
Daily Newspaper for festival
Lots for the children to do and see
Lots for the children to do and see
Be moved by dance and drama and music
Be moved by dance and drama and music
Dance group at the free Sundowner show
Dance group at the free Sundowner show
Sun sets on another great festival
Sun sets on another great festival | Source

The Diary of a “Festino”: The 2019 45th National Arts Festival in Makhanda/Grahamstown.

Thursday 27th June:

The journey from East London (about 200km) takes about two hours and so leaving at 07h30 from East London, I arrived at the P.J.Olivier High School sports fields at about 10.00 after a detour to the 1820 Monument to book my chosen shows for my first day. This year I decided not to pre-book any shows, music, art or lectures, but simply to book day by day. This may result in disappointment if any shows are fully booked, but with over a hundred and seventy five every day to choose from, I believe I will get enough that I will enjoy. At the same time I can get daily feedback from other “festinos” to help with my choices.

I set up my tent in rather windy conditions. It has been a bit of a battle on my own but only took about an hour before everything was in place. After that I need a bit of a rest and so I browse through the Festival Program that I bought on arrival. Had looked at it on line, but now could page through it, and must admit that I sometimes just like to feel the pages of a book rather than read things on my computer. Then off to my first show, the highly acclaimed “Electric Juju” performed by the excellent actor Rob van Vuuren, at the Kingswood Theatre. I will rate every show on a basis of one to five stars and I am sad to say this show earned only two stars. I simply found the plot and message confusing to say the least.

So in my mind the festival could only get better. And it did! The afternoon show called “Samson”, was one of the most powerful experiences of theatre that I have experienced. The writer/ producer took the Bible story of Samson and placed it in today’s world. It had everything; music, drama, powerful acting, poetry, visual effects and a strong message. Rating: 5 stars.

The third performance on day one was “The Old Man and the Sea”, based on the famous Hemmingway’s story set in Cuba and acted by three young, but very talented, actors who played six characters with great skill. The set was a revolving stage and worked well. Good humor, pathos and drama combined to bring this old story to life. Rating: 4 stars.

Friday 28th June:

After a good night in my tent at the camping area provided by the P J Olivier Hoerskool on their rugby field overlooking Grahamstown, (that has recently been renamed Makhando) I went to the 1820 Monument Building to book my shows for the day. My daughter Gill and I prefer to camp and then have more money to spend on shows. Obviously there is a wide variety of accommodation available in hotels, bed and breakfasts, and school hostels and even nearby luxury game lodges.

First visit was to the English Museum NELM Theater at 11.00 for a talk on “The Origins of Ubuntu” by Fatima Dika a Xhosa woman play writer from Guguleto in Cape Town. While it did not add as much to my knowledge of “Ubuntu” as I had hoped for, it did give a lot of insight into Xhosa Culture and their strong belief in the spirit world. Also information about the communication between the present and the past as practiced through the Sangoma. Coming from a Brahma Kumaris background, the speaker sometimes introduced the belief of that movement into her talk rather than that of her clan, tribe and nation. This shows how belief is a process in everyone’s life.

The next production was “Le Journal” and dealt with the problem of false news, honest reporting and the integrity of journalists, editors and owners of news media. A very topical subject in this world where good examples come from the USA, Russia and South Africa. One of the problems of the Arts Festival is that many plays are using multi-language approaches which can be frustrating when a lot of the narrative is in a language that you do not understand. So while this play was powerful with its message, much of the dialogue was a mystery to me and so very frustrating. So I must be more careful in choosing plays and look carefully at the language or languages used. (Four Stars)

The final play on Friday was, to my mind, the high light of this year’s festival. It was a choir presentation by a Rustenburg School under the direction of a world renowned choir leader Ralf Scmitt and consisted of South African songs in several languages and genres. Wow! The audience left the show singing down the streets. A pity it was a one off presentation and needed a much longer coverage. It was one of the main productions on this year’s program. (Rating: Five Stars +).

There are two main distinctions between the presentations at the festival: main featured productions and what is known as the “fringe”. Any individual or group can book a venue and perform on the so called “fringe”. If you are a well known artist or group, you could be be featured in the main program - an example would be a group like Ladysmith Black Mambazo who would be on the main program and not the fringe. Then again a dance group from Lady Frere in the Transkei would fit into the “fringe”.

Saturday 29th June:

My early morning show was at the PJ Olivier Theater and was a dance group called Ukupeleliswa, from North West Province. I had seen a preview at the Sundowner show in the Monument Foyer the previous evening and so booked for their dance performance.( Rating: Three Stars). I wanted to support this group who work hard and travel far to introduce many young people to the arts. What an experience it must be for these children, often from disadvantaged or tribal areas, to see a bigger world! Unfortunately these shows draw very few of the 200 000 people who come to the Arts Festival every year. So I choose a couple of these shows to support and am always impressed by their enthusiasm and skill. Their tribal costumes also make a pretty picture. The free one hour Sundowner hour at the Monument Foyer presents a preview from shows that will be performing the following day or two.

My show at 12h00 was “Silkworm”, presented by an amazing actress Jenine Collocott using a box of silkworms and interaction with the audience to illustrate what is really important in life. The question she asked and answered was: “What would you do if today was the last day of your life?” (Rating: Five stars). In the afternoon I chose an environmental comedy called “Bennie the Bushwacker”. The talented actor Ben Voss presented a clever production that challenged the audience to make a difference to the environment. He also explained what the 9 senses are that we need to use/or not use, to save our world. (Rating: Four Stars)

Saturday evening completed the day with a play called “Salt”, based loosely on the story of Lot and his family from Genesis chapters 18 and 19 and set in a modern religious setting. Salt represented the tears and sweat that are shed in our world. Rating: (Four Stars).

Sunday 30th June:

Sunday started off with a challenging play called “The Blue Period of Milton vd Spuy”. A clever script took the audience to an emotional climax where the viewers were challenged to think about how children are often treated in families by insensitive parents and how this can eventually lead to disaster.( Rating: Four Stars)

At lunch time the Kwa-Zulu Youth Orchestra presented an interesting musical program where the audience was introduced to the different groups of musical instruments used in an orchestra and also to some light classical music. The well known Saxophonist, Andrew Young, made a guest appearance. (Rating: Five Stars). During the festival a National Youth Orchestra is selected for a concert in the main program, and also a National Youth Jazz Orchestra. During the festival young musicians from all over the country are coached at workshops by well known conductors and musicians, both locally and from overseas.

Another high-light of the festival, in my opinion, was an afternoon dance production by the Rhapsody Dance Centre that presented a powerful look at abuse of drugs and violence as options that many young people choose. It was apparent that this year’s festival was dealing with important social issues that all face in our changing world. (Rating: Five Stars)

My final production on Sunday evening was a play set in South Africa during the 18th Century, based on the Dorsland Trek and the hostilities between the English and Afrikaners after the Boer War was over. Two young actors played several parts in the play, but somehow failed to really pull it off, so I suggest they keep their day jobs at this stage. (Rating: Two Stars).

The beauty of the festival is its wide range of Artistic Opportunities. Some may fail to impress, but at the same time it gives people in the Arts a chance to flex their artistic muscles. It is estimated that more than 2 400 artists perform at the festival and the money from their shows go directly to them. The Eastern Cape Governments puts R13m into the festival and it is said to boost the economy of the area by over R94m every year.

The Villager Green is a huge area where many hundreds of sellers present their articles for sale, buskers do their thing and the choice of food and drink seems endless. The arrival of over 200 000 people in Makhanda during the week is a big boost for this Eastern Cape Town at many levels. People attend the Arts Festival for different reasons and because of the many different shows and exhibitions the “festinos” have to make difficult choices as to what to attend. But there certainly is something for everyone.

So my journey to the National Arts Festival ended and I took down my tent in a gale and returned to East London. Regrets? Yes. I would have liked to have attended more Jazz presentations, big featured shows and more lectures. High-lights! The Rustie Choir, the play Samson, and the mask from Liberia that I bought from one of the street vendors who specializes in African Masks. Hope to be back next year so I will start saving! My R2500 budget has made just a small contribution to making the world a better place, if for no one else, definitely for me!.


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