NAF: A History of Disrupting the Nation’s Narrative

Illustration: Izelle Taljaard

“All theatre is necessarily political, because all the activities of man are political, and theatre is one of them.” — Augusto Boal (1979).

Art is a warping mirror that can reflect, challenge, and break with the society in which it exists. Art is an intervention. It can disturb, upset, and affront. But art can also distract, deflect, and deteriorate into a spectre that prettily floats above the gritty situations that it critiques.

Disruption, the theme of this year’s National Arts Festival (NAF), is an integral part of the festival’s history. From its largely Eurocentric inception, it has progressed into a platform for artists and audiences alike to criticise and inspect the world they live in. It has also provided a space for artists to reinvent and innovate new ways of being and seeing. But is the feast of the Festival, of which only a privileged few can take part, itself in need of disruption?

We cannot overlook the past. In some sense, the Festival has colonial roots. The 1820 Settlers’ National Monument was established in 1974 by poet and academic, Guy Butler, as a memorial to the British settlers, and it was meant to be a ‘living’ monument filled with theatres. In the same year, the NAF that we know today first started as an inaugural student drama festival, focusing mainly on Shakespeare, held at the Monument.

“The decision was then made to start a [broader] arts festival because the Eastern Cape was a cultural desert at the time,” says Tim Huisamen, a former committee member of the Festival and a retired Afrikaans lecturer from the Rhodes University School of Languages.

This festival was meant to provide ‘high culture’, in the form of theatre, dance, and classical music, and they were organised along Western themes such as Beethoven or Mozart. Experts were put in charge of the various disciplines, and the Festival found its first sponsors: Five Roses Tea and Standard Bank.

“It soon transpired that this was a colonial recipe, and there was a need to expand it,” says Huisamen. The audience for this festival was largely white and elderly, and the material was European. To increase its appeal, the Festival was expanded to include jazz, modern dance, films, and other disciplines.

“It [also] tried to decolonise itself by drawing in black artists and black audiences, the latter of which was quite successful,” says Huisamen. NAF has always been open to all races and genders, and works at the Festival have never been censored or subjected to artistic restraint, even during the height of Apartheid. It consequently became an important platform for reflection and criticism.

“The liberation movements saw the Festival not as a colonial remnant, but as a place of both liberal and oppositional politics and thought,” explains Huisamen.

The government knew that pressure needed to be released somewhere. “They often allowed in Grahamstown what they would not allow elsewhere,” says Huisamen. “You could test the waters.”

The Festival has always been a place of disruption and a platform for political and protest theatre. It was at NAF that the archetype for the South African protest play was created, which emphasised an easily transportable and minimal set, and a small cast. This new theatre style became a platform for experimentation.

“To disrupt means not only [to stop] the tired and the traditional, but to reinvent, to create the new,” says Huisamen. “In that respect, the Festival in a small way has possibly been doing that for forty years already, in the sense that an anti-Apartheid theatre piece by Athol Fugard would be disruptive. Painting or pottery exhibitions by major black artists [during Apartheid] would be disruptive. Classical acts would invite players of traditional instruments and incorporate them with traditional Western music. That is also disruptive.”

This space, which was opened up at the Festival for criticism and traditional art during Apartheid, could be seen as tactical rather than progressive. Akin to the traditional authorities allowed in the homelands, it could reflect the outer shell of progress that on closer inspection is shallow.

Nonetheless, the Festival did permit criticism which would not have otherwise been allowed. “We have always had the most brilliant black actors, and musicians of all races,” says Huisamen. “The Festival tried to correct its colonial roots as a predominantly white, Eurocentric festival.”

After 1994, this ‘disruptive’ atmosphere continued. Huisamen says that as the black middle class grew, so did a black audience, who wanted to see their interests and experiences reflected at the Festival.

There was some headway made in this direction in the early 1990s. Andrew Buckland — an established theatre-maker and actor, a current associate professor at the Rhode University Drama Department, and long-standing participant at the festival — says that programmes were put in place to find and fund both contemporary and traditional performance forms on the main programme. These would then be produced in township venues, where the wider community had access.

“At that time, these venues had all the technical support of the Festival. [This] reflected a move toward identifying with and focusing on contemporary and traditional indigenous performance forms and validating them within the national cultural and arts landscape,” says Buckland.

Art that was critical of Apartheid and that incorporated indigenous art forms was ground-breaking during Apartheid, and the push for greater diversity in the early years of post-Apartheid South Africa also pushed the boundaries. At present, the Festival continues to showcase talent that challenges the borders of art as well as the socio-political landscape.

“Apartheid has not ended, which is why we still need disruptive art. What has ended is official discrimination,” says Huisamen.

Many art forms and pieces showcased during the Festival comment on the rife inequality that permeates post-colonial South Africa. Township theatre, for example, often focuses on contemporary problems such as sexual abuse, HIV/AIDs, and drugs.

Many works in this year’s Festival disrupt historical or colonial narratives. Nadia David’s What Remains explores the legacy of slavery. Francois Knoetze’s virtual reality piece, Virtual Frontiers, contends with the geographical and psychological boundaries that exist in post-colonial Grahamstown. Others tackle gender issues, and bring to light the forgotten narratives of women, like Khanyisile Mbongwa’s performance piece, Umnikelo Oshisiwe – Ibandla Lomlindo, which interrogates the weight of colonial religion on the bodies of black women.

Many works also subvert traditional Western storylines, moulding them to fit the contemporary South African milieu. This is seen in Giselle, by South African dancer and choreographer, Dada Masilo, who deconstructs classical ballets, often fusing them with contemporary and African dance styles.

“Disruption is a way of trying to break cliché expectations, to reinvent classical works, and to try new approaches and new ways of thinking,” says Huisamen. Many works in this year’s Festival programme are daring and experiment beyond the status quo of art itself, whether moving between genres or transcending the boundaries of multiple disciplines.

But is this disruption enough? Dancing on stages, talking to power, and provoking thought does not necessarily disrupt the status quo. Art helps us look in the right direction, but it does not steer the wheel.

The Festival is no longer white and Western, and the black middle class has joined the ranks of festivalgoers and artists. There have also been efforts to bring the Festival to the wider community through initiatives such as the Fingo Festival, located in Grahamstown’s Joza Township and which provides free children’s activities, productions, and workshops daily.

Furthermore, as Huisamen points out, NAF is cheaper than other festivals in South Africa because of sponsorship and subsidies from the state, province, and business. Impressive ranges of fine art, street theatre, and other select pieces are free to the public. The Festival also provides economic opportunities and temporary employment for much of the Grahamstown community.

But the majority of people in this nation are poor and black, and they seem to be perpetually marginalised in this ‘national’ Festival. This may not be intentional, but it is symptomatic of a wider inequality which is rampant and resilient. However, Buckland’s point still stands: “No matter how many shows which feature critique of the socio-political landscape are presented or facilitated by the Festival, it is the structure and make-up and form of the Festival which requires disruption.”

Over the past few years, the Festival has shifted away from the centre of town. The Village Green used to be situated closer to the Joza Location, but has since moved to Rhodes University. Most of the venues are also situated on the Western side of town. It therefore no longer physically includes the day-to-day participation of the broader Grahamstown community. “This shift has been a tragic reflection of the country’s growing economic divide,” explains Buckland.

“Art is not special,” further expresses Huisamen. “It is expensive. There is a tension between providing urgent social services in the country and funding a large art festival such as this.”

Buckland suggests that the way art is envisioned in relation to society needs to be disrupted.  “Access to perform, present, exhibit as well as attend the Festival is more and more reduced to the privileged few,” he says. “I believe that artists do not wish to create in a lopsided landscape. Disruption is urgent and requires all participants to rejoice in its process.”

As the status quo changes, so to do the terms and parameters of disruption. The Festival made progressive gestures during Apartheid and in the early post-Apartheid era. But what was disruptive then is not necessarily what is disruptive now. There are greater dampers on the Festival than potholes and the current economic crunch. The Festival has come a long way, but it still has some way to go in terms of bringing the joys and challenges of music, dance, theatre, and art to the community, in particular the poor and those in Grahamstown East. Art should not be for the privileged few.

Given how deeply inequality pervades South Africa’s milieu, there is no simple solution. But this should not stop us from acknowledging, and attempting to disrupt, the problem. Art is an intervention. Disruption has been a part of NAF for a long time, and it should continue to be. But the spectre of art should reflect back on itself, so that abstract innovation can translate into concrete progression.

By Sam van Heerden