The National Arts Festival
by Carol Brown
I never fail to be amazed at how the National Arts Festival changes Grahamstown overnight. As a participant curator this year I arrived a few days early and stayed in the centre of the town where the streets were deserted and quiet after dark, and one felt unsafe walking out the door. Then suddenly on the night before the opening there was a hustle and bustle - gazebos were erected, posters appeared and artists and 'festinos' appeared out of nowhere, transforming the town into a vibrant centre of energy, with woolen-scarved, beanie-clad figures rushing around handing out flyers, panicking about venue arrangements and drowning their troubles by frequenting the cafés and restaurants which spring like magic out of nowhere for festival season.
However that is only one side of the festival and my main interest was the visual art. Many shows start their national tours at the Festival and there were some rich pickings this year. The Standard Bank Young Artist Award winner was Pieter Hugo and it was with surprise that I heard Festival Art Director Andrew Verster announce that Hugo was the first photographer ever to be selected. It is surprising because photography has played such an important role in contemporary art in the past few years.
Hugo's exhibition was entitled 'Messina/Musina' after the town on the border of South Africa and Zimbabwe. It is an area rich in minerals and Messina was founded in 1904 as a copper mning town. Its name was changed from Messina back to its original Musina in 2002 as part of the programme of reclaiming the country's indigenous heritage. The area has an itinerant population drawn there by the promise of the wealth of diamonds, the rich pickings of wildlife which bring hunter-tourists to the area and, being situated on a major border, it also attracts refugees and truckers. The exhibition is curated to meld together images of the environment and its inhabitants and Hugo draws subtle and uncomplicated comparisons between the two. Images of a baobab tree (normally associated with a tourist's romantic vision of Africa) despoiled with litter and graffiti are juxtaposed with a portrait of an elderly working class family - white mother and father with a prosthetic leg, and a young black child. This is just another vision of Africa which confounds the stereotype.
David Goldblatt's 'Some Afrikaners Revisited' is interestingly placed in the same venue, the Monument. These photographs were taken about 40 years ago and comparisons between the two photographers cannot be avoided, a tempting prospect given their overlapping subject matter. Hugo's work also begs comparison with that of Roger Ballen. All three have photographed poor, white Afrikaans people living in deprived and depressed circumstances. However, each approaches the subject in a different way. It is important to remember that Goldblatt photographed his subjects at the height of apartheid, when the white man considered himself superior to the black population. Goldblatt scratched beneath the surface of this imbalance, finding vulnerability, awkwardness and many other complexities. His choice of black and white also adds a sombreness to his work. Hugo's photos show the end of this cycle of white domination but he still finds displacement and disappointment. It's an interesting prospect to look closely at the work of these two photographers, separated in age by half a century of intense change.
In the belly of the Monument, in the Gallery in the Round, underneath Goldblatt and Hugo's portraits of working class South Africans, we are confronted by a different comment on the country's history. Focusing on labour and the production of wealth, James Webb's sound installation 'The Black Passage' makes us feel claustrophobic and uneasy as we wander around the blackened room, listening to the sounds of an an empty elevator cage descending and ascending the shaft of the South Deep Mine. This makes a fitting juxtaposition with the exhibitions on the upper level.
The Albany Museum housed an exhibition which I curated called 'Positive 2007' placed in a gallery adjoining Christine Dixie's show Parturient Prospects (Mother/Land), which again evinced a conversation, with both exhibitions examining bodily interiors and various medical discourses. Leora Farber's Dis-location/Re-Location was a photographic and sculptural essay exploring her identity in a historical context where she juxtaposed herself with the persona of Bertha Guttmann - a Jewess brought to South Africa in the 19th century to enter into an arranged marriage with Sammy Marks. Her collaboration with Strangelove brought another dimension to the show.
The above exhibitions (which will be reviewed individually on ArtThrob) were some of the highlights. However, it is a pity that the Fringe exhibitions were not as challenging or interesting (except for Peter Van Heerden's Six Minutes which was beset with weather and other problems). This is a pity as the Festival provides an ideal opportunity for experimental work and there are some wonderful venues which could be used more imaginatively. Theatre has taken up some of the site-specific challenges, but the visual arts could have been far more edgy. Perhaps that is a challenge for the future, when a younger group of artists could begin to participate in more creative ways.