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GRAHAMSTOWN 2002 (article first published : 2002-07-19)

The National Arts Festival began in 1974 and was a project of the 1820 Foundation (now the Grahamstown Foundation). Standard Bank took over the sponsorship of the Festival 18 years ago when it became known as the Standard Bank National Arts Festival. Although Standard Bank withdrew as the main sponsor from this year, extra sponsorship was acquired from the National Arts Council and the Eastern Cape Government.

The media office has announced that attendance figures were up from 2001 with over 102,000 attendees at the various events, representing an increase of 5.2% in comparison with the 1% increase achieved in 2001. Monetary sales this year increased by 12.2%.

The Festival had a smaller programme with a total of 342 events and 1191 presentations (2001: 362 events and 1302 presentations). Also the duration was cut to eight days from ten days last year. The main programme had an increase in attendees of 3.2% and an increase in monetary sales of 11.1%. On the fringe, the attendance increase was 6.09% compared to an increase of 4% for the year before. Monetary fringe sales increased by 13%.”

Despite the increase in attendance figures, it seemed to be easier to move around the town – this might have had something to do with the fact that the popular PX village was missing this year which allowed more space outside the Cathedral and City Hall. The Village Green produced no major surprises with only a few stands offering interesting and innovative craft.

There was an increase in media attendance over 2002 and the 250 members of the press attending the festival included foreign media representation from the United States, Ireland, Germany, Sweden and Holland. There was a strong growth in the now-permanent street theatre component and this included KZN’s Ellis Pearson and Bheki Mkhame as well as Free-Birds, a collaborative event between Jerry Pooe’s Eager Artists and the Dutch based theatre company Het Waterhuis.

Dealing with issues of male identity, the Durban Art Gallery’s Male Order exhibition was well received as was Fiona Kirkwood’s fascinating exhibition Coats and Coverings which included 10,000 ring-pull can tops, polyethylene fibre and a range of other items such as condoms and digitally manipulated photographs. Watch out for these two exhibitions when they return to KZN.

The KZN Philharmonic was afforded the honour of presenting the Festival Opening Concert and went on to accompany the ballet Coppélia. They also performed a symphony concert as well as two free education and development concerts. This is the first time that there has been a single orchestra “in-residence” at the Festival.

Rajesh Gopie’s The Coolie Odyssey was highly acclaimed and Ben Voss and John van de Ruit’s Green Mamba was a sell-out hit from the first day of the festival. Fantastic Flying Fish Dance Company impressed – as we knew they would! -with their excellent Mainland production.

Festival Chairman Mannie Manim has confirmed that the two major sponsors, the Eastern Cape Government and Standard Bank, will remain on board for a further two years. The Festival brings in an estimated R37 million to the region each year, providing vital financial support to the Eastern Cape region. “Many residents of Grahamstown are dependent on revenues brought in during the duration of the Festival. It is doubtful whether the region would survive as well without it,” he says.

Our feeling was that the festival has reached a position of maturity where it is not threatened by other major cultural events. It’s still the fountain and barometer of the country’s artistic pulse and there was a sense that a post-“New South Africa” culture seemed to have taken hold. A time when the leading creative and artistic forces have reached a new-found identity and have placed apartheid, the struggle, protest theatre and a fledgling democracy in their proper historical context and are producing work that doesn’t need to fly political banners to be strong and relevant. It was also good to see revitalised versions of dramatic classics such as A Streetcar Named Desire and Private Lives.

The general buzz was that one and all were welcome at the Festival, no matter from what walk of life, artistic style or cultural mix. Artists in all disciplines explored their identity and zoomed into the quest of the individual on a spiritual and creative level through works that were vibrant, energetic and highly focused. There was just a touch of sadness that Sello Maake Ka Ncube couldn’t be on this year’s Festival along with his fellow Standard Bank Young Artist Award winners. But nobody would argue with his decision to take up the offer of the lead role in the The Lion King due to open shortly in London. When he returns to South Africa he will present a production at the festival honouring his award.

Fringe theatre prices were more reasonable and the successful craft outlets, most of them without credit card machines, did good trade for cash. There was a strong Afrikaans representation both in productions and audiences. It was also heartening to see a strong contingent of middle-class black communities with money to spend supporting the festival and the many jazz and contemporary music events, particularly keeping the Monument alive and buzzing late into the night.

Caroline stayed in two B&B establishments – having to change because she got her initial booking dates wrong! These were the delightfully informal and comfortable Pip & Nan’s in 6 Henry Street, great for people who love animals and wild birds (phone 046 622-7516), and the elegant and beautiful The Hermitage at 14 Henry Street, a very old and gracious home filled with antique furniture and silver run by Dick Jaffray and his wife Bea Jaffray, well-known as one of South Africa’s finest ceramic artists (phone 046 636-1503). Thomie is a true dedicated festival-goer and usually sleeps at the caravan/tent park near Graeme College although this year, the main tent pole was forgotten in the rush to leave Durban so he slept in the car …. and lived to tell the tale, insisting that he was quite comfortable and would do it again!

All the productions we saw are reviewed in artSMart’s Festival page– Caroline Smart and Thomie Holtzhausen




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