Monday, July 21, 2014

A festival of contradictions: NAF 2014

Baker's Wrecking at Private Siding 661 (2010-2011) pic by Paul Greenway

In the dark and damp underbelly of the Settler’s Monument, an austere face-brick landmark set in the mountain overlooking Grahamstown, the artist Bridget Baker installed a reproduction of a basket used in the 19th century to “land” colonials on a boat that would take them to shore.
With the ropes suspending it breaking through the ceiling of this makeshift basement gallery, it was easy to believe that this faux artefact had somehow been lodged in this building since the colonial era, though the edifice only dates back to the mid-’70s, coinciding with the advent of the National Arts Festival, which celebrates its 40th anniversary this year. A handwritten letter by Baker’s father dealing with the family's history is pinned to the basket, weaving another time period into it, but you can only read it if you step through a small opening in a wall of bricks behind which the basket is located.
Baker allows the viewer to choose from what distance they are willing to view the object and thus history itself, which in this installation appears to have been hidden from view and has only recently been 'rediscovered'.

More important, this complex twisting or collapsing of time-periods that Baker’s exhibition, A Temporary Admission, evokes, continuously echoed throughout this year’s festival – from remarks by the new Minister of Arts and Culture, Nathi Mthethwa to the vast array of period pieces, from Ubu and the Truth Commission, The Bram Fischer Waltz to Princess Zinzi Mhlongo’s Dinner with Alisa, which revisits a master-servant black-white dynamic in Argentina in the 19th century. With historical works seen through a contemporary lens, or this multitude of histories seen in juxtaposition, the festival operates as this time machine that takes you back and forth, serving as the means for makers and consumers of these cultural products to grasp how the past impacts on the present or the constant presence of our history – in much the same way that Baker’s basket appears to be set into the monument, as if it has been there since before the advent of the building itself.
Baker's Wrecking at Private Siding 661 (2010-2011)
pic by Paul Greenway

Perhaps it is the nature of cultural production, which opens up this ambiguous temporal space where multiple histories can be intertwined, or is it our unfinished history that prompts this condition?
Could it be Grahamstown itself and its vexed past, which encompasses the annihilation of the Xhosa who were settled in the environs? It always seems as if small towns wear their histories more brazenly on their metaphorical sleeves.

The latter condition tends to present a red flag for politicians and artists (who are more alike than either party would care to admit) as they tend to always charge head-on into the territory of history, kicking up the sand that covers it as they lay down their own tracks. Mthethwa probably had no intention of raising any dust from the annals of history when he arrived in Grahamstown on the day of the opening.
His carefully scripted speech to the media seemed to be guided by a forward-looking sentiment; engaging with the festival’s present-day role as a “nucleus for social building. There is no doubt that the festival continues to bring together artists from different backgrounds, races, classes and cultures to express and celebrate our unity and diversity. This has taken the country forward”.

Nevertheless, there were contradictions in his rhetoric, as different time periods became jumbled: while he suggested the festival was born from “the shameful historical pages of our conflicted colonial and racist past”, he also said that the last four decades of the festival had laid the foundation for our “non-racial, non-sexist and democratic society”, implying this had already been achieved.

Many in the room wondered whether the former minister for Safety and Security had any knowledge of the festival, past or present. The chief executive officer of the festival, Tony Lankester, was quick to step in and point out that the festival was established to celebrate the works of Shakespeare, as if to defend it's "shameful past."
Shakespeare is not a neutral topic and evokes clear colonial ties, but nonetheless, in its day, it would have been in opposition to the National Party’s policies, where Afrikaans was prized above all other languages, including English. In the hands of many local theatre-makers Shakespeare’s works have functioned as the foundation for plays that have interrogated hegemonic rule, corruption (moral and political) and racism. Nevertheless, this history of the festival has shaped its present bias for English Language productions, though this could be said to characterise all our cultural platforms.

These dated works, like Baker’s faux 19th century basket, provide the ideal vehicle to address history, peel back some of the layers of time.  At the festival this year this phenomenon came almost full circle with Marthinus Basson’s macbeth.slapeloos, an Afrikaans translation, which zones in on the theme of guilt.

Our history is not straightforward and artists complicate it because of their tendency to identify those points of friction between the past and the present. Baker's film, Jetty SCOUR, which formed part of the installation also evokes this moment of friction between the past and present, except nothing dramatic occurs when this faux basket arrives empty at the docks in Port Elizabeth and is inserted into the present. The basket is 'landed' at the same time as a large mirror, which reflects the setting that is outside of the camera's view. The mirror works as this self-reflexive vehicle that is constantly keeping us connected to the 'shore', the present and states the sense of displacement between this faux basket and the present day and the act of bringing something from another place and time and inserting it into this space.  The banal exchanges by the personnel managing arrivals at the docks, however, works at normalising this strange reenactment, undermining its monumentality.  As a result there is no sense that this basket (and what it represents) doesn't belong here.

Mike Van Graan’s didactic Return of the Ancestors, where he imagines Steve Biko and Neil Aggett returning to the present to gauge the state of our democracy, is a good example of a more direct approach to navigating a relationship between the past and present. By using these respected figures from the past, he passes judgement of the present through their eyes.

This is not an unexpected mode; contentious artist Brett Murray, the creator of the infamous Spear, uses the pseudo-communist visual rhetoric to expose the ironies inherent in the corrupt practices of a former liberation party, which betray its exploitation of a capitalist system. Naturally, the government aren't exactly approving of this form of temporal subversion.
This collapsing of the boundaries between the past and the present could be considered as a means of redressing the past and tackling problems in the present-day from another angle and, as such, this mode in cultural practice does work at advancing social cohesion as per Mthethwa’s understanding of the role that artists must pursue and the festival should facilitate.

However, he was very clear in his address to the media that artists should not cause “social discontent” with works guided by “derogatory intentions”. In this way he implied that the project of social cohesion inevitably entailed suppressing anything that could cause offence to anyone. So while artists were free to dig into our history they should steer clear of aspects that might be uncomfortable for other people. Would this not limit social cohesion? And would this not entail suppressing our history in its entirety?

Aside from the fact that this would render almost every work on this year’s programme unfit, there was a strong racial slant to this observation, in which he suggested that not only were “African children” able to discern the correct manner to address “elders” but that the philosophy of ubuntu that promotes caring and sharing and is the basis for social cohesion is one that cannot be engaged “through the lens of colonials but indigenous people”.

This comment implied that not only were white artists or those not perceived to be indigenous, which could include Indian, Chinese or African artists from other parts of the continent, not able to participate in this project of social cohesion via the arts, but that the “colonial” framing of culture, which encompasses everything from a Shakespearian or Beckett play to the festival itself, should also be rejected.

Ironically, and significantly, the artistic director of the festival, Ismail Mohamed, defended Mthethwa on social media, though he was not present at the media briefing. So while many dismissed Mthethwa’s off-the-cuff remarks as a consequence of his ignorance about the arts, Mohamed’s support of the minister implies these ideas could have an impact on this annual platform, though it is hard to imagine how they could be implemented without the notion of social cohesion being nullified in the process.

Contradictions abounded at this year’s festival; for while it was touted as being one that celebrated its 40th anniversary, which coincides with the country’s 20th anniversary of democracy, there were no works or exhibitions on the main programme that dealt with the festival’s history or that euphoric moment in the mid-’90s when the country was finally liberated from apartheid or, more important, that dealt with the inherent conflict between the intersection of these two anniversaries.

Was this just a gross oversight on the part of the artistic director, or was this part of a deliberate effort to sidestep history?

There were some dated artworks from bygone eras such as by those by Sam Nhlengethwa and Marion Arnold on the Goodman Gallery’s self-congratulatory 14/30 exhibition, and some revivals of some early post-apartheid classics such as Kentridge’s Ubu and the Truth Commission and Sylvaine Strike’s Black and Blue. Nevertheless there was no concrete effort to engage with both anniversaries.
Presenting dated works that affirm political or social attitudes that coincide with our post-apartheid outlook conceal rather than reveal our uncomfortable history and the complex origins and life of this festival.

This “work” was left up to its visitors to try to extrapolate from works like Baker’s Temporary Admission, which through its title alludes to the way in which art cannot fully resolve any political or psychic demand, as it is rooted in the slippery world of subversion and imagination. - first published in The Sunday Independent, July 12, 2014. 

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