11 July 2014 by Sarah Came

The National Arts Festival – a national treasure

The arts have long been a representation of the zeitgeist of a people, and a means of creating a drive for change in individuals and society.

Grahamstown. Image courtesy of Pierre Nel

The National Arts Festival, held annually in Grahamstown in the Eastern Cape, is no exception. The festival has a special place in South African society – it is one of the country's arts and culture highlights, and is the biggest annual event of its kind in Africa.

The festival was also one of the few public forums during the apartheid era that allowed people to express their dissent through means such as political and protest theatre.

The festival is still a barometer for the spirit of the nation and is a forum where ideas can be expressed through the arts; it also acts as a showcase for new trends in the arts.

The entrance to the 1820 Settlers Monument building
A statue outside the 1820 Settlers Monument building. Many performances and exhibitions take place in the building

Even though it is held for 11 days in the depths of winter (around the end of June to the beginning of July), it attracts tens of thousands of visitors and performers. This year’s festival began on 3 July and will run until 13 July.

Arts showcased at the festival include (but are definitely not limited to) music of many kinds, theatre, fine arts, stand-up comedy, film, dance and a children’s arts festival.

Many performances and exhibitions take place in the 1820 Settlers Monument (also known as the Grahamstown Monument), which acts as the hub of the festival and is situated atop a hill from where one can look down upon Grahamstown.

Highlights of the festival still to come include:

  • Bruising, by Nicola Elliott. Elliott merges dance and theatre to use the actors’ bodies as the medium through which she tells the story. (PG13)

    Venue: Alec Mullins Hall
    Times: Friday 11 July 6pm
    Saturday 12 July 2pm and 6pm
    Sunday 13 July 2pm and 6pm

  • 20/20 Visions, by Mamela Nyamza, Tebogo Munyai, Themba Mbuli and Chuma Sopotela, is a single work comprised of four dances by four artists. The piece challenges the current socio-political climate while still being rooted in personal histories. (PG16 N)

    Venue: Glennie Fest Centre
    Times: Friday 11 July 12pm
    Saturday 12 July 12pm and 7pm

  • Slowly, written by Howard Barker and directed by Geoffrey Hyland, follows the story of four 'barbarian' princes who, when conquered, are supposed to commit suicide. Barker’s work has been performed throughout Europe, Australia and the United States. (PG 14)

    Venue: Victoria Theatre
    Times: Friday 11 July 2pm and 8pm
    Saturday 12 July 2pm and 8pm
    Sunday 13 July 2pm
    A post-performance discussion with the director will be held after the 2pm performance on Friday.

  • macbeth.slapeloos, directed by Marthinus Basson, is Basson’s adaptation of Eitemal’s Afrikaans translation of Shakespeare’s MacBeth. It focuses in particular on the elements of guilt and insomnia that arise in the two main characters. (PG16 SV)

    Venue: Rhodes Theatre
    Times: Friday 11 July 12pm and 6pm
    Saturday 12 July 12pm

  • Kwela Bafana+, directed and devised by Phyllis Klotz and Smal Ndaba, and starring Velephi Khumalo, calls itself 'A feel-good musical journey to the heart of Sophiatown'. It is inspired by the music of the 1950s that helped to keep spirits alive during apartheid tragedies. (15+)

    Venue: Graeme College Theatre
    Times: Friday 11 July 8pm
    Saturday 12 July 3pm and 8pm
    Sunday 13 July 3pm and

  • Original Skin is a humorous performance that deals with pertinent subject matter such as apartheid, adoption and a quest for belonging. Performed by Phillippa Yaa de Villiers and written by Phillippa Yaa de Villiers and Robert Colman, the play is based on de Villiers’s life story.

    Venue: Rhodes Box theatre
    Times: Friday 11 July 10am
    Saturday 12 July 10am
    Sunday 13 July 10am

  • Fiddler in the Loop showcases the talents of violinist Luca Ciarla, who creates his own one-man orchestra on stage using a loop pedal to layer sounds. (Recommended age: 8+ years)

    Venue: Beethoven Room
    Time: Friday 11 July 7pm

  • World renowned musician Hugh Masekela will be performing along with his band.

    Venue: Guy Butler Theatre, Monument
    Time: Saturday 12 July 7pm

  • Piano and baritone duo, Christopher Duigan and Federico Freschi, will perform music by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, George Bizet and Lerner and Loewe to name but a few. (recommended age: 12+ years)

    Venue: Rhodes Chapel
    Times: Friday 11 July 7pm
    Sunday 13 July 3pm

  • Award winning singer/songwriter Lira will treat festival-goers to a performance of her funky soul sound.

    Venue: Guy Butler Theatre, Monument
    Time: Friday 11 July 7pm

Of course there are many more theatre, drama, dance and other performances, exhibitions, craft markets, fringe events and children’s events to keep you more than entertained. For more information see the full programme guide.

Relaxing at the festival. Image courtesy of Alexander Lazaris
Many craft shops spring up around Grahamstown during the festival. Image courtesy of Alexander Lazaris
The old church in Grahamstown overlooks the vibrancy of the festival. Image courtesy of Alexander Lazaris
A beaded sculpture of a bull. Image courtesy of Alexander Lazaris
A man demonstrates the ancient art of working a loom. Image courtesy of Alexander Lazaris
Music and rhythm are everywhere in Grahamstown at the time of the festival. Image courtesy of Alexander Lazaris
A mime demonstrates her art. Image courtesy of Alexander Lazaris
Posters for upcoming events plaster the walls on the streets of Grahamstown. Image courtesy of Alexander Lazaris
A performance taking place on the ground floor of the monument

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