Monday, 11 July 2011

Shooting the festival in the back

by Niren Tolsi, The Mail & Guardian

As the National Arts Festival in Grahamstown reaches its final weekend there is a growing urge to do a Meursault-on-the-Beach and pop a cap in its ass.

And then pump four more into its dead body.

The relentless cycle of watching shows, scrambling from lectures to interviews to shack settlements like Ethembeni which were flooded after an early morning deluge on Tuesday, and then, writing, constantly, leaving one bereft.

Not the ideal place to be if you're attempting to understand the South African condition through the lens of theatre, fine arts comedy and various lecture series at the festival.

Replenishing the soul

Which is why the Frantz Fanon colloquium hosted by the Rhodes University politics department provided a welcome chance to replenish the senses and the soul.

The colloquium, which runs until Sunday has attracted some of the foremost Fanon scholars in the world, including Lewis Gordon, VY Mudimbe and Nigel Gibson, who on Wednesday launched his most recent book, Fanonian Practises in South Africa: From Steve Biko to Abahlali baseMjondolo.

Fanon's ghost was resurrected on Tuesday night which was spent squelching through the mud and faeces of the Ethembeni shack settlement on the outskirts of Grahamstown.

The settlement started in the late nineties and is populated mainly by people evicted from the Eastern Cape farms that have since been become private game reserves and lodges.

Grahamstown has been bitterly cold and rainy over the past week and Tuesday morning's deluge left the residents in Ethembeni wallowing in water in their homes -- literally.

Even moving from bedroom to kitchen is a treacherous, uncomfortable experience as the water is ankle-deep in most rooms (See story here).

Ayanda Kota, of the Unemployed People's Movement in Grahamstown says the Makana Municipality has been slow in response, and this instance, as in previous, presumes to know what the affected communities want, rather than consulting with them.

Said Kota: "Politicians and government believe that poor people cannot think for themselves, that we are incapable of intellectualism and just bodies, others to be dealt with at their pleasure," he says.

Fanon screams in the wind cutting through the settlement.

Lack of sophistication and nuance

On Wednesday, it is off to an early morning interview with Jay Pather, the chairmen of the national arts festival committee. Pather is, overall, satisfied with the standard of the work on offer, and the technical skills within the country.

One of the main emergent themes at the festival, he says, is a concern with the national reconciliation project. But he bemoans the lack of sophistication and nuance in examination, suggesting that many of the pieces on show at the festival want a "quick resolution" (see interview here)

I can't but concur -- there have been very few shows at the festival --aside from international ones like Purgatorio -- that has really created a buzz at the Fest.

A view shared by traders down at Village Green which, since 2009, has moved from near the central business district to the Rhodes University Great Fields. The migration had been criticized for further polarizing a town along racial and economic lines.

An enlightening experience

It is a valid concern: a walk through the former Village Green (now Fiddler's Hub) and the container village near the cathedral at night is an enlightening experience: The traders -- predominately black, mostly selling Fong-Kong gear -- are huddled at the stalls they are selling from. Inside the large Standard Bank edifice on High Street traders and their families are huddled in the ATM room and in the bank's forecourt: their campsite for the night.

A more apt reflection of the dichotomous Standard Bank National Arts Festival would be hard to find.

But back up at the (more melanin-deprived) trading at Great Fields, the stallholders are a tad grumpy on Thursday afternoon. The space was flooded on Tuesday after the rain and had to be closed down for the day. Sales are so-so.

There is also a palpable sense of deflation. Over a beer, they open up.

Rupert Staveley, who has a stall selling (self) designer clobber remarks on the lack of creative interventions at the Village Green: "There aren't any artists, musicians or creative people here at Village Green, performing, adding to the atmosphere," he says.

Another, who had visited the Afrika Burn festival in the Karoo recently remarks on the insane creativity there -- from the massively sculptural to a daily free press -- and wonders why that sort of ingenuity isn't taking place in Grahamstown, especially outside of the festival mainstream.

There are suggestions that South Africa has reaquainted itself with the reality of 2009's depression -- suspended temporarily in the build-up to the 2010 World Cup, and the euphoria that followed.

The traders all appear to have the jaded look of contempt that comes with intimacy. Grahamstown is getting to us all, it would appear.