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The National Arts Festival-2014-Grahamstown
The National Art Festival 2014- Grahamtown-South Africa.
Forty years ago the first arts festival was organized in the University town of Grahamstown. The main venue was, and still is, the 1820 Settlers Monument on a hill outside the town. During the July School and University holidays, in the middle of winter, the quiet town becomes a hub of activity.
Artists from a wide variety of disciplines flock to the Eastern Cape to find a venue to display their wares or perform, during the first ten days in July. The “Festinos” (visitors/spectators) arrive from far and wide to attend the performances, view the displays, and get involved in the debates. Most visitors spend some time and money shopping at the huge flea markets located in the ten tents on the Village Green or along the streets of the town.
In the large Auditorium at the 1820 Monument, renowned international and local performers play to full houses. This year “The Chicago Children’s Choir” thrilled audiences, as did the three female Divas who performed a presentation called “Devalicious”. “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” and “Maria Schneider in Concert”, were listed as high lights in the Cue, which is the daily festival newspaper. The Oklahoma University Drama Department produced the controversial play “Miss Evers’ Boys” and The Natal Philharmonic Orchestra played music from Beethoven. Tickets for these and other mainline events were hard to come by unless you booked early. Current issues are always addressed, and this year an example would be the Musical based on the Marikana Disaster. These topical shows challenged thinking about the new South Africa and the world in general.
An advert for the festival says “34Km2 of Amazing” and that shows how big the festival actually is. Performances take place from mid-morning till late evening in venues all over the town. Every school hall and other suitable venue is utilized for what is known as “the fringe”. Performers from all over the country and other countries put on plays, present dance performances, play jazz or sing. The visual arts section displays paintings, sculptures and many other forms of creativity by well-known or up and coming artists. Comedy makes up another part of the program not to be missed if you enjoy a good laugh.
Being a University town, it is not surpriing that writers and debaters also have their part. Topics like “What is a citizen?”, "Is Ubuntu still alive?", debated by intellectuals from far and wide, is typical of what happens in the “Mind Fest”. Well known writers, local and international, discuss their work in the “Writers Forum”, and so I could go on and on.
Children are definitely not left out of the equation with plays performed that entertain and challenge their thinking. In the Botanical gardens a delightful play called “The Baobab”, taught about the importance of looking after our environment, and you could also say our roots. The Assitej Organization produces a booklet high lighting activities for younger “Festinos”.
There is also a “Spirit Fest” where plays, dance and visual art promotes the spiritual side of life. Christian choirs and plays make up an important part of that section of the festival.
For some people it also is a “food fest” and the festival offers a wide variety of eating opportunities from South African dishes to other African and international food. The cosy “Longroom” venue offers a buffet and bar, with a fire warming the clients as they eat and discuss the day’s events, while putting plans in place for the next day.
Every morning a festival newspaper “The Cue” discusses what is hot and what is not so hot. “Ovation Awards” are made to productions that amazed audiences on the previous day. Booking for shows is done at the various ticket offices or online. Else you can just pitch up at the venue and hope to get a seat.
Every evening at the Monument, a free one hour production allows contributing artists to perform a five minute clip of their show. The venue is filled with “Fesinos” who are keen to have a brief pre-view of what is on the next day, or who are simply short of funds. The cost of shows varies from free to about R60 ($6). Many people with big bucks and strong constitutions come for most, if not for all of the festival, while others on small budgets (like us) come for a day or two.
With the enormous influx of visitors, every kind of accommodation is offered from Hotels, Bed and Breakfast, School and University Hostels and even Camping. For the two nights we visited the festival we camped on the P.J. Olivier High School sports fields at a very reasonable cost of R50 per person per night. Very basic, but we had an electricity point and warm showers. What more can one want? “Warm clothes and an electric blanket”, I hear the answer!
If you are a South African and have never been to the National Arts Festival, do yourself a favour and put it on your wish list. If you live elsewhere in the world plan your trip to South Africa to take in couple of days in Grahamstown during the first week in July. Addo Elephant Park is only about 100km away and you could easily see the big five there in this Malaria free part of our beautiful country. The Festival will, however, give you a view of South Africa, and indeed Africa, that you could not get anywhere else.