Profile | Seismic steps in a stolen city

A look at the exclusionary nature of Grahamstown’s National Arts Festival and the lives of those left behind.

Words by Yasthiel Devraj

Photographs courtesy of Francois Knoetze

A towering giraffe lumbers down High Street alongside patchwork humanoids, like creatures salvaged from the shattered fragments of Tata’s Rainbow. Discarded posters from previous National Arts Festivals (NAF) comprise their intricate skins, their flutters slicing razor-blade silhouettes against the mid-July sun.

The magicians inside the machines form Grahamstown-based collective 10 Day Men, and on this day, the seismic steps of their poignant performance art piece, Semi-Gloss, are peeling at the colonial legacies that still grip this stolen town.

Born as a collaboration between Monwabisi Dondashe and Athenkosi Nyikilana of Phezulu Stilt Walkers, Ayanda Nondlwana and Siyabonga Bawuti of pantsula crew Via Kasi Movers, and Cape Town-based multi-media Francois Knoetze, Semi-Gloss is a searing reminder that beyond NAF’s “11 days of Amazing!” lie 354 more, fraught with struggle and sacrifice for local artists.

In conversation with Via Kasi founder Ayanda Nondlwana it’s clear the same rifts that cleaved Grahamstown East from West two centuries ago have begun to encroach on even the two brief weeks that are meant to sustain local creators. Nondlwana outlines those impositions through weary lips. “At first we had the feeling that Festival is for all of us,” he remembers. “You didn’t have any race because everything was at the centre of town. When everyone was at Cathedral Square you had that feeling of art.”

With Semi-Gloss, the 10 Day Men defiantly disrupt Grahamstown’s exclusionary spaces by dancing on, and straight across, the town’s palpable chasms. The flakes of their papier-mâché flesh scrape at the superfluous sheen of The Great Field’s canvas tents.

In recent years, however, NAF’s decision to divide the Festival’s then iconic marketplace, Fiddler’s Green, has suffocated any budding sense of unity. To the west — lush marquees sprawl across the Great Field of the University Currently Known as Rhodes (UCKAR), the tents filled with established traders that apparently qualify for some indefinable “international standard”. The Cathedral Square Nondlwana remembers now sits neglected, its traders equipped with claustrophobic wooden huts and makeshift tarpaulin to shield against the wild Grahamstown winter. Fiddler’s Green itself has become a barren afterthought, occupied mainly by a few disused amusement rides and fewer patrons.

And in one revenue-fattening swoop, another wall of privilege is erected using the livelihoods of Grahamstown East residents as its bricks and mortar.

“Now it’s almost like they’re emphasising that this festival is for white people,” sighs Nondlwana, arms spread wide to emphasise the scale of his exasperation. “We don’t feel that we’re part of it anymore, because we have such little access”. Most significantly, the chasmic divide has made performing and earning an income at the Festival almost mutually-exclusive for those not backed by vast resources and extravagant advertising. “Now if you want your show to be a full house, it has to be directed by someone known”, he says. Nondlwana, has been involved in three productions at NAF 2016, and witnessed first-hand the rifts emerging in what used to be a far more vibrant and inclusive atmosphere. “This Festival was actually a loss for many of us,” he asserts. “Even if you do get funded, what’s the point of coming here for audiences of four or five people? As a young black performer or director, you have to hope to get noticed by some big fish.”

With Semi-Gloss, the 10 Day Men defiantly disrupt Grahamstown’s exclusionary spaces by dancing on, and straight across, the town’s palpable chasms. The flakes of their papier-mâché flesh scrape at the superfluous sheen of The Great Field’s canvas tents. Their shadows accost the poster-plastered walls of the 1820 Settler’s Monument — NAF’s home for the last four decades — expelling the laser-jet veneer that annually smothers local creators lacking the resources to roll-out elaborate marketing campaigns.

The Department of Sport, Recreation, Arts & Culture’s (DSRAC) logo emblazoned on those posters is further evidence of the marginalisation of Grahamstown artists, according to Nondlwana. “They claim that DSRAC is best-run in the Eastern Cape, but we don’t see that support here,” he asserts. “They [DSRAC] sponsor so many major acts coming in from bigger cities, but people barely know that Grahamstown exists.”

While commercial considerations increasingly narrow the scope of aspiring artists based in Grahamstown, initiatives such as the recently-launched Creative City project are taking steps to support and grow the town’s most powerful capital — its rampant, unapologetically unique creative culture. Creative City, according to Nondlwana, is one of the few efforts being made to provide year-round platforms and support structures for local artists. “What I like about Creative City is that they encourage independence and assist us in establishing our own careers.”

Contemplating the relevance of Semi-Gloss moving forward, Nondlwana is optimistic. “At least we can bring an inspiration, hopefully, for other black artists — because they’re losing their passion,” he says. “People must know how we as artists in Grahamstown struggle, and hopefully the documentary can show that.”

Semi-Gloss is accompanied by a documentary contextualising the struggles and inspiration from which its powerful characters were born. The performance piece will return to NAF in 2017, to once again stab stilts through the bulls-eye of bourgeois bullshit that hangs thick like smog in the Grahamstown air.

This piece was originally published in Edition 10 of Ja. magazine.