This year’s National Arts Festival – which runs from 2 to 12 July in Grahamstown – not only features a number of strong and visible women in most genres, but also numerous productions and exhibitions that interrogate and question fixed thinking in relation to gender more broadly. This year’s programme also features more women in an effort to amplify female voices in the theatrical, performing and visual arts.
At the closing of the recent PEN World Voices Festival in New York, Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie spoke out against the ‘codes of silence’ that govern American life. ‘The fear of causing offence, the fear of ruffling the careful layers of comfort, becomes a fetish,’ Adichie said. Practising what she preaches, the award-winning writer recently spoke out against the criminalisation of homosexuality in her home country. But, she told The Guardian: ‘I have often been told that I cannot speak on certain issues because I am young, and female, or, to use the disparaging Nigerian speak, because I am a “small girl” … I have also been told that I should not speak because I am a fiction writer … But I am as much a citizen as I am a writer.’
Adichie’s critique could equally be levelled at South Africa’s slow burning culture of consent in relation to everyday gender inequities and the often unspoken violence that plagues the lives of many South African women. This year, the National Arts Festival tackles this seam of gender inequality head on.
This focus forms part of the overall thrust of this year’s Festival to bring urgent social matters to light and present material that explores the limits of expressive liberty, provoking audiences and taking them beyond their comfort zones. ‘The arts need to challenge and provoke,’ says the Festival’s Artistic Director, Ismail Mahomed – and that includes provocation in relation to the most intimate questions of gender identity, sexuality and power relations.
More female artists have been consciously featured in the 2015 programme in an effort to amplify female voices in the theatrical, performing and visual arts. Among the many female writers, directors, performers, curators and trailblazing artists across all genres appearing at this year’s National Arts Festival, some of the leading lights include:
Tara Louise Notcutt is involved in seven productions at NAF2015, not least ‘Three Blind Mice’ (Rhodes Box, Mon 6, Tues 7 and Wed 8 July at 3pm and 8pm daily). Notcutt directs James Cairns, Albert Pretorius and Rob van Vuuren in this unforgiving journey into the dark heart of South African justice, which looks to the horrific and barely believable narratives (Pistorius, Dewani) that have dominated our media recently.
Thoko Ntshinga directs the Baxter Theatre Centre’s revival of legendary South African theatre-maker Barney Simon’s hard-hitting 1985 docudrama ‘Born in the RSA’ (Graeme College, Thurs 2 July at 6pm, Fri 3 July at 2pm and 6pm and Sat 4 July at 2pm and 6pm). Having performed the role of Thenjiwe in the original production, Ntshinga is the lifeline connecting the 1985 staging to this current revival.
Patricia Boyer: ‘Miss Margarida’s Way’ (The Hangar, Fri 10 July at 6.30pm, Sat 11 July at 10am and 3.30pm and Sun 12 July at 12.30pm and 6pm) Audiences and critics in over 50 countries have cheered this allegory about totalitarianism, which uses as its central metaphor a classroom. Also ‘Florence: A Script Reading’ (Eden Grove, Seminar Room 1 on Tues 7 July at 4pm – as part of Think!Fest 2015) exploring the life of Lady Florence Phillips and the circumstances that led to the creation of the Johannesburg Art Gallery.
Nelisiwe Xaba and Mamela Nyamza: ‘The Last Attitude’ (Rhodes Box Theatre, Thurs 2 July at 2pm, Fri 3 July at 2pm and 6pm, Sat 4 July at 2 and 6pm) After years of not dancing together, two female choreographers/dancers meet up on stage again to do a ballet. The piece will interrogate the politics of this ancient art form: including the male posture and the relationship between the male principal dancer and the ballerina.
Jolynn Minaar: ‘Unearthed’ (Olive Schreiner, 7 July 12pm and 8 July 2.30pm): A young South African filmmaker swallows her optimism on the potential shale gas could bring to her people after traveling to ground zero and uncovering the dirty secrets of the fracking industry.
Jodi Bieber: ‘Between Darkness and Light’ (Grahamstown Gallery, Albany History Museum, 9am to 5pm daily) is this internationally acclaimed photographer’s first major mid-career retrospective and includes a selection of her work from 1993 to the present. The show has been exhibited at Stadhaus Ulm and Museum Goch in Germany as well as the Wits Art Museum.
Monique Pelser: ‘Conversations with My Father’ (Alumni Gallery, Albany Museum, 9am to 5pm daily) is a continuous dialogue (2011 – to date) between the artist and the objects, images, sound recordings and documents she inherited after her father died of a rare motor neuron disease which rendered him unable to speak for the last year and a half of his life. Her father was ‘a good man, a good father’. As a member of the South African Police force, he was also a product of his environment.
Thandiswa Mazwai (Guy Butler Theatre, Monument, Sat 11 July at 7pm): The Guardian recently called her ‘South Africa’s finest female contemporary singer’. One of South Africa’s most influential musicians, her music defies categorisation, but reflects elements of African traditional, jazz, Afro-soul and house.
Thandi Ntuli (DSG Auditorium, Fri 3 July 11.30pm) Captivating young pianist Thandi Ntuli is making waves in the contemporary South African jazz scene and rapidly earning the admiration of the industry’s most respected musos. She has performed on various local and international stages including the Calabar International Jazz Festival, and recently returned from a national tour promoting her solo album, ‘The Offering’, which has received high accolades.
Also catch pianist Kai-ya Chang and gifted vocalists Nomfundo Xaluva, Lindiwe Maxolo, Auriol Hays and Siya Makuzeni (vocals/trombone) at the Standard Bank Jazz Festival.
Lerato Bereng is this year’s Featured Young Curator. Having graduated with a Masters in Fine Art (with distinction) from Rhodes University, she will be returning to her stomping ground. Bereng, who is a curator at Stevenson gallery in Johannesburg, has curated ‘Nine O’Clock’ (Fort Selwyn, 9am to 7pm daily), an exhibition featuring a selection of works by Simon Gush, including elements from his project, Red (2014), and administrator for Standard Bank Young Artist Kemang wa Lehulere’s exhibition ‘History Will Break Your Heart’ (Monument Gallery, 9am to 6pm daily).
For gripping theatre based on harrowing true stories about women rising up against the odds, see:
‘I Have Life: Alison’s Story’ Based on the true story of a woman who, twenty years ago, was raped, stabbed multiple times and then had her throat cut, SAFTA Lifetime Achievement award winning theatre director Maralin Vanrenen’s adaptation of Marianne Thamm’s book, is a tribute to one woman’s remarkable journey from her ordeal, through her recovery and on to becoming an inspiration around the globe. Featuring Suanne Braun as Alison Botha. (Victoria Theatre, Thurs 2 July at 4pm, Fri 3 July at 2pm and 6pm, and Sat 4 July at 2pm and 6pm)
‘Woman Alone’, Christo Davids’ adaptation of Dannelene Noach’s autobiographical novel ‘Arabian Nightmare’ tells the story of a woman working as nursing co-ordinator in one of the large, modern hospitals in Riyadh who ends up being abducted and incarcerated in a Saudi Arabian jail. A Muslim woman comes her rescue in a poignant tale about personal courage in the context of current-day religious conflicts. (The Hangar, Fri 10 July at 12:30pm, Sat 11 July at 1pm and 9pm, and Sun 12 July at 10am and 3.30pm)
Author: Gilly Hemphill
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