South African arts fest celebrates women

6 July 2015

This year’s National Arts Festival – which runs from 2 to 12 July – 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.

At the closing of the PEN World Voices Festival in New York earlier this year, Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie spoke out against the “codes of silence” that governed 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 programme this year 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 this year, the leading lights include:

  • Tara Louise Notcutt’s Three Blind Mice in which she directs James Cairns, Albert Pretorius and Rob van Vuuren in an 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.
  • Patricia Boyer brings Miss Margarida’s Way to Grahamstown. 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 explores the life of Lady Florence Phillips and the circumstances that led to the creation of the Johannesburg Art Gallery.
  • In Jolynn Minaar’s Unearthed the young South African filmmaker swallows her optimism on the potential shale gas could bring to her people after travelling to ground zero and uncovering the dirty secrets of the fracking industry.
  • Between Darkness and Light is the first major mid-career retrospective of internationally acclaimed photographer Jodi Bieber. It 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’s Conversations with My Father 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.

The Guardian recently called Thandiswa Mazwai “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.

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, an exhibition featuring a selection of works by Simon Gush, including elements from his project, Red (2014), and Kemang wa Lehulere’s exhibition History Will Break Your Heart.

For gripping theatre based on harrowing true stories about women rising up against the odds, see Woman Alone, Christo Davids’ adaptation of Dannelene Noach’s autobiographical novel, Arabian Nightmare. It tells the story of a woman working as a nursing co-ordinator in one of the large, modern hospitals in Riyadh who is 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 National Arts Festival runs from 2 to 12 July 2015 in the small university town of Grahamstown in Eastern Cape.

Source: National Arts Festival