National Arts Festival, Makhanda
27.06 – 07.0.2019
Time was not on my side this year visiting the National Arts Festival, but Makhanda, being a very small city, is forgiving of busy schedules. It’s one of the things that makes traveling to this drought-ridden, pot-holed, schismatic bit of this Eastern Cape still truly worth the effort. There is a lot to experience, quite easily and fairly reasonably, once you’ve gotten into the sort of laid-back rush that is the festival’s groove. The headline artists this year were all women: Standard Bank Young Artists Award winner Gabrielle Goliath, Featured Artist Berni Searle, and Thania Peterson with a solo showing. It’s an astute selection that draws together traces of colonialism and apartheid, memory, subjectivity and displacement which read against the festival’s focus on land as a central theme. Not being able to get to all the shows, this review picks up on a few highlights of one hasty day.
First up at the 1820 Settlers Monument was of course Gabrielle Goliath’s show ‘This song is for …’, a deeply felt meditation on the violence wrought by sexual abuse on the lives of South Africa’s most vulnerable. Based on the notion of the dedication song, the show comprises eight video recordings of individually chosen music tracks re-performed by local gender non-conforming music ensembles. Each recording is accompanied by a declaration, some defiant and determined, some lengthy, others equally affecting in their suppressed brevity. All are testimony to the insidious impact of violence on whole families and communities, from one generation to the next. ‘Everybody hurts, everybody hurts, everybody hurts’ echoes the stuttering refrain of REM’s eponymous track, as the singer of this particular re-performed version glitches the lyrics at their most poignant. Other vocalists similarly find their way into the rifts and fissures of Ave Maria, Uyesu Ulithemba Lam, and Beyonce’s Save the Hero. The music is beautiful, sung in substitution, voices amplifying voices. I’m interested in this acting on behalf of, the transmission of self through others that occurs perhaps when we recognise the necessity of our collective responsibility towards both the victims and perpetrators of violence. This is not a lazy claim. Our trauma is spatial and temporal, the result of successive acts of dispossession and dislocation over centuries, and we are all implicated in one way or another.
Located one floor down in a raw basement space I found Thania Peterson’s video Sawt. The placement of the work can hardly be incidental given the Monument’s commemoration of the British Settlers’ arrival and occupation, and Peterson’s sustained effort to uncover her Indonesian ancestral heritage. Inspired by Mahatma Gandhi’s 1930’s ‘Salt March’ protesting the British salt monopoly, the artist and her sons enact scenes of departure and arrival from salt flats to the Cape shore line, across generations and to the beat of the ghoema drum. The video forms part of a complex of works that reflect on walking as a political and spiritual act under the title ‘Between land and a raised foot’, with additional works at the Raw Spot Gallery, and a new outdoor installation, Ziyarat, on the Monument mountainside below.
I missed the installation – described as evoking a Sufi ritual using sticks, cloth and talismans to mark a path for reflection – but made it to the gallery. Here another video plays, this time of the artist marking out a space in an older colonial edifice, quietly stepping through the Castle of Good Hope, veiled in black. Although I find the range of Peterson’s symbolic references at times a bit overwhelming, what does carry through in these works is the artist’s effort to reveal and exploit the permeability of material histories and geographies, opening them up – sometimes quite forcibly – to new arrangements of meaning.
As the festival’s featured artist, Searle had multiple works on show in five different locations across the city, forming a retrospective of sorts. These included daily screenings at the Noluthando Hall Bioscope, an installation in the Cathedral of St Michael and St George, Spirit of 76, projected onto a large screen suspended above the main entrance to the Monument, and a new multi channel video installation, A Place in the Sun showing in the Gallery in the Round, also at the Monument. I was lucky enough to catch this last piece just before it started showing, stepping into a disconcertingly black space. Filmed at the abandoned Maitland Swimming Pool in Cape Town, the action centers around an old double bed in the center of the empty, graffitied pool. The artist wanders the perimeter, disappears, returns. In another sequence the stands are temporarily filled by a small crowd. Eventually the bed, stacked with brushwood, goes up in flame, burning into the night.
One of the most noticeable features of Searle’s video pieces is their sense of duration. I don’t mean that they are long, but rather that there’s a sustained tension between the expectation of action and its resolution, a giving and withholding that she strategically employs in other dimensions of her work. As the central figure in many of her video productions, Searle’s actions are stubbornly resistant to interpretation, almost to the point of opacity. She walks away, she returns, she lies down. Other times figures and objects move in and out of frame, or are possibly moved by some outward force. The artist is always very much herself (a recognizable individual of identifiable gender, race and standing), but she is also somehow never entirely this alone.
In their various configurations of absence and presence, Searle’s work seems to pose a set of questions ‘what is it exactly that constitutes a person’s being, a memory’s recollection, a location’s place, an event’s happening?’ And, as I sat in the stillness of the monument, with flames and embers fading into darkness, I found myself wondering ‘well, if this is a place in the sun, what might it mean to arrive there?’
Besides the headliners, a number of other shows are worthy of mention. On point for this year’s theme, Luke Kaplan’s ‘Hinterland’ presents a studied reflection on the Karoo, partly in response to the threat of extractive mining, in a series of performative interventions exploring the landscape as a site of looming change. It’s a sensitive, thoughtful body of work, but rests a little heavily on a western tradition of looking and being in place marked by big skies, empty vistas and intimations of the unknowable. Sikhumbuzo Makandula and singer/songwriter Mthwakazi’s Ingoma ka Tiyo Soga was a surprise gem. The exhibition explores the music and exceptional influence of pioneering intellectual, composer and evangelist Tiyo Soga (1829-1871). Ultimately though it was Yanela Jija’s clay sculpture of one lone gnawed corn cob surrounded by a hoard of hungry mice on the ‘Social Reflections’ exhibition that captured the day, and my heart, before I had to rush out of town. Such a succinct summation of the burning burning question in this, our land of abundances. So little? For so many?