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Art, Culture

Business is Slow

by Libby Allen, images by Liam Lynch / 05.07.2010

Arrival at my ninth National Arts Festival: a teenage boy selling naartjies and then begging, when we don’t bite. “Please, business is slow this year”, he says, trailing us, trying to get something, do anything, clean or guard or perform or whatever, for a buck or a Spur burger.

It’s the late nights and cold air and liberal use of words like art and artist, which are the things about Grahamstown. They are dangerous things, on the inside. From the inside you may be bitter or you might be moved – or both, time of day and flow of wine depending.

Each year’s festival is defined by a series of trends – in the art, the parties, the fest-fashion (which I say with a finger flourish and scathing tone) and, blatantly, in the begging.

There is desperation here.

I think it was around the turn of the millennium, when the children lining the streets set out with silly hats and faces swiped with white paint, to strike the Michael Jackson pose and hiss between their teeth for a 20 cent, 50 cent; small chance of silver. Evolution and demand and a couple of years meant the act turned to transvestite MJ, then Chaplin MJ, then suddenly Chaplin MJ with a gun, Chaplin committing random acts of violence, then civilians with toy guns to heads and plastic knives against throats, fists out, all friezes begging for coins in the Rama tub. It comes in other ways, too. Three years ago: a kid opens his jacket to offer me a choice of newborn kittens. Twenty bucks… ten bucks. Five. Desperate.

And down to the Village Green, where it’s happening, too. You cannot compare the need for ticket sales to the need on the streets, but the fact stands – this is a hard year. Business is slow. Our collective faith in the miracles of the World Cup had us all believing that this would be the year the world comes. Maybe, maybe, they’d come for the football and go further for the art. The festival is extended – more productions are entered, everything coated in the promise of fifteen days of amazing! But it’s tough. The world didn’t come. Not really.

It’s not all dire. As far as arts festivals go, around the world, Grahamstown stands as one of the big boys. Thirty-six years old, second year under a new director who takes no bullshit and stands for art and art alone. The programme is huge. It should be on fire.

But business is slow.

All images © Liam Lynch.

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