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.