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Grahamstown National Arts Festival

Nobody Move!

by Bartlett, images Retha Ferguson / 12.07.2011

Grahamstown, Eastern Cape. Frontier Country. Or so the shitty brown tourist road signs tell us – part of some misguided, misspent, local government marketing wankfest that happened a few years back.  A needless reminder of the region’s colonial history, when the truth is that the last colonial outpost is still very much alive and well today in the form of Rhodes University.

And so to the National Arts Festival, where art and poverty guts it out in the bitter mid-winter cold of the City of Saints. Ten days of hit-and-miss theatre and obligatory hedonism. Where hopes, dreams and ideas collide. Where spirits are broken.

Smoking a fat joint on the frosty lawn of a rented Grahamstown home with two well known comedians, at ten in the morning, on the first day of festival, because that’s how you survive around here. These guys have heard and seen it all: actors performing to empty houses, stalls not making a single sale, accommodation plans gone horribly wrong, relationships ended badly. You name it, shit goes down opening day.

Conversation roams from the framed photo of the strangely provocative ten-year-old girl playing in a mud pit sitting above the piano in the entrance hall, to whether they are sado-masochists or short-term memory loss sufferers for finding themselves here again. As pot-smoking artists, the truth is somewhere in between.

But the truth is also that unless your idea of a jol is a hard-earned beer at Crab’s Creek after a marathon through what’s left of Knysna’s forest, or standing on the beach in J-Bay with binoculars, trying to knob touch Kelly Slater when he comes out the surf, then sweating it out to swap germs with strangers at the Grahamstown festival is still your best bet.

This is the third year that the festival is under new management, with ex-SAFM big cheese Tony Lankaster taking up the reins as CEO. So what’s different? For starters, the Village Green  – home to the market – has relocated to Rhodes University’s “Great Field”, situated in the heart of campus. This would be great were it not for the fact that the students are on holiday and so there’s zero vibe on campus, save for the Campus Security patrolmen looking important. Not so great.

Grahamstown National Arts Festival

No one in charge will ever admit it, but moving the market inside Sir Cecil John’s academic fortress was done to keep impoverished local blacks at bay so that the rich white tourists feel safe enough to open their wallets and spend their dosh on local and imported crafts. Keeping a pocketful of R2 coins for the army of car guards just wasn’t working for the well-meaning white folk anymore and the natives were getting hungrier, if not more restless.

For the first time in decades, the market was cancelled on one of the days this year – owing to the Great Field flooding. With evacuation warnings in the nearby town of St Francis and snowstorms flooding East London’s Vincent Park mall at the same time, we can cut Tony and his organizing committee some slack in this regard. But not when it comes to the power outtages. Haven’t those homeys heard of backup generators? Let me drop this last anecdote as a parting shot, a closing salvo from this year’s frontier frontlines…

Grahamstown National Arts Festival

OK, so Standard Bank pulled out of sponsoring the whole shindig back in the late 90s and ever since then the talk has been about the festival’s inexorably depraved downward spiral. The bone that the big banking dogs did throw G Town’s way was the Standard Bank Young Artist’s Awards (SBYAA), which is a national PR stint that shows face with the sponsorship of Festival productions.

So it’s the opening night of fest and I’m kicking it in the Rhodes Theatre, watching the premiere of SBYAA winner Neill Coppen’s Abnormal Load. The play is about the struggles of  a small town in KZN: reconciling its Anglo Boer heritage with the demands of modern day. Like what has the past ever done for us? A bunch of Rorke’s Drift community actors are trying to decide who’s going to play who in their annual pageant, and there’s beef because a black dude is nominated to play a white war hero.

I can embellish about the big cast, lavish costumes and set – as a SBYAA winner is wont to splash out on – but I doubt you give a shit. You’re already entertaining yourself with your iPhone or Blackberry, so what do you need art for anyway? Exactly. Just what I was thinking as I wrestled for the armrest with some fat, cultured prick.

Grahamstown National Arts Festival

To the chase: we’re all there. The struggling actors who’ve travelled from afar, and toiled for their art. The faithful audience, praying for something that’ll rival the last good flick they rented from DVD Nouveau. We’re 45 minutes into the performance and the actors are staging a climb up a koppie in full battle regalia. It’s like we’re all fighting for something. And then – BOOM – the lights go out.

“NOBODY MOVE!” A desperate cry from the sound and lighting box. “I repeat. NOBODY MOVE!.” An increasingly panic-stricken woman makes her way to the aisle, declaring “Everybody, I am the venue manager. We have had a power failure. I need everyone to remain calm and in their seats until either the power comes back on, or we can figure out a safe evacuation plan. Because if anybody gets up and moves now, there’ll just be a stampede. So, please, NOBODY MOVE! Now… does anyone have a torch?”

A full ten minutes goes by. Cellphones and self-importance spring back to life. Enter stage right, out of the pitch darkness, our now hysterical venue manager. Like a bad scary movie, with torch in hand she turns it on, lighting her horror-stricken face. Realizing that she is now very much the centre of attention, she turns the torch away from her face, casting a light across the stage. And there, much to their chagrin and my amusement (for what is art for, but this?) are the noble cast of actors, still frozen in their battle poses, committed in their struggle, to the bitter end.

*All images © Retha Ferguson.
**Bartlett is a regular contributor to The Big Issue.

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  1. Megan says:

    I love this. Delicious, raw Grahamstown festival. Were you still stoned when the lights went out? I felt the onset of Anglo Boer battle paranoia in the blackout.

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  2. Sim says:

    Try having those power shortages in the middle of writing your exam. Fun.

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  3. layla says:

    Nice personal rant. Entertaining and well written. But where’s mention of the art, any art! It being the national ARTS festival and all.

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  4. Andy says:

    there’s always a Layla…

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  5. jackson says:

    wank wank wank. cry me a river. i agree with layla, hardly any mention of the arts.

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  6. Thishiwe says:

    Look not every story has to deal with every aspect of the festival. I found this an excellent read… Go read Cue if you want blow by blow show by show reviews. This is about the state of the arts as opposed to the art itself

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  7. Mike Loewe says:

    Ha, ha! Lekka rant.
    Hard to take a stoned critic too seriously.
    You should have offered this to Cue.
    nd true to you layla. Facts are: festival attendance broke the record and hit 200 000 — 7.something more. I learned from the Afrovibes crew that the average attendance at the Edinburgh Fringe is 7.
    Well done for making the effort, pilgrim.

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  8. DontTestLordFinesse says:

    I agree with Layla

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  9. happy brown says:

    Go Layla!

    The locals have started their own festival in Fingo Village named the Fingo Festival as a reaction to them being excluded from the National Arts Festival. Those in power at the festival declined the application from the Fingo Festival to be included in the fringe festival and we all know that no one is declined a space at the Fringe. You could have a kak filled show and they’ll let you put it on and nominate you for a Standard Bank Ovation Award. Something about this festival stinks, it felt like we were at a St Andrews fun day. At night EQ and Olde 65 tried to keep with the times, if the times were the early naughties when people actually thought DJ Cleo is a genius of our time. The National Arts fest is longer about the arts, this doesn’t mean there wasn’t any amazing work its just that those people up at the Monument have no clue whatsoever. Big up to those who braved the journey.

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  10. Dave says:

    Hey Andy!

    Thank you God there is always a Layla. It might sting a little but you want a percipient reader, your site is better for it, trust me.

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  11. Kretz says:

    This article is misguided on so many fronts.
    Let’s start at the beginning.
    1.Frontier country, yes, it may be government money that could have been better spend but the fact is that this part of South Africa was and still is a frontier. This is where the colonialists met the Xhosa and the divide remains. Wreckage would have pointed that out to you, otherwise, read your history, look around you. The East Cape is raw, wild and untamed, which is what makes it beautiful. Five minutes outside of Ght and you’re in the middle of the bush, serious bush. That a national arts festival occurs in this setting is wonderful in itself.
    2. The reasons for moving the village green to the great field were explained ad nauseum when it occurred in 2009. If you seriously think it’s because NAF wants to keep tourists happy then you reveal your own easy prejudices, in short, it’s a cheap shot and not very original either.
    3. Cecil John Rhodes’s academic fortress. Seriously? Did you even open your eyes while you were in Grahamstown or were you so blindly stoned you couldn’t see through the slits? Rhodes University is the most accessible campus of any I’ve ever been to in this country. Anyone can simply walk into it from any point. There’s no security gate, no fence, nothing. If you come from Joza and want to picnic on St Peter’s lawns there is nothing to stop you. Try doing that at Wits, or UCT.
    4. Power outages. An entertaining anecdote but where’s your backup? You insinuate it was the NAF’s fault. Did you bother to check what was the cause?
    Did you make any effort to find out how many shows besides Abnormal Load were actually affected? Can you tell us?
    5. I really wouldn’t boast about getting stoned in the morning unless you’re writing an article about being stoned in the morning. It’s immature and leads to the conclusion that you don’t take yourself seriously, so why should we?
    6. You’ve ignored the golden rule of reporting: if you’re going to criticise something, do your homework. You’ve flung out so much bile thinly disguised as clever observation and cool cynicism but you give no indication that there is anything below the surface of your hip facade.
    There may or may not be problems with the NAF that need to be highlighted and engaging with these would be welcome but please, don’t trot out a bunch of hackneyed old complaints from your disengaged goef chair.

    I was there, for the 14th time, and saw theatre that blew me away, that made me laugh and cry, heard music that stretched my mind and body further than I thought it could go, had conversations that sparked new ideas, saw people across the spectrum of age engaging with one another, smiling at strangers in the street. I had my clothes and music system stolen and saw acts of kindness and reciprocated trust. In 11 days I experienced more life than is normally packed into six months or more of everyday activity.
    Festival can be harsh. It can crush you and break your heart, but if you’re too cool to actually let go and be swept off your feet one way or the other, then I do feel sorry for you.
    However, my pity is neither here nor there, good of you to have made the journey to Grahamstown, what really puzzles me is how you seem to think it’s ok to publish writing that is so sloppily self-serving. Pull it tight man.

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  12. Tony says:

    Not going to comment on the article – but just want to respond to and correct something that “happy brown” wrote as a comment…

    Yes, the Festival turned down the Fingo Festival. Why? Because even though the application deadline was end January, they applied to be part of the Fringe four months later – at the end of May. The programme was printed, booking had been open for a month.

    All the Festival requires of artists ahead of the deadline is that they fill in a form, write a 50-word publicity blurb about themselves and, if they’re in a Festival venue, pay a deposit. That’s not too big an ask, and its hugely important that they do it because then they can get included in the programme, on the website, and as part of the Computicket system and better their chances of someone actually coming to see their work. Three basic things that help artists make a success of their Festival performances. Without them, they’re probably going to fail. If they apply a month before Festival the ship has long since sailed. And if 270 other artists could get it together in time, should we rally behind the one who slept through the deadline and use it as a stick to beat the Festival?

    There’s two sides to every story – and it’s worth checking both out before leaping to conclusions.

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  13. Christine says:

    For the record,I was there on Abnormal Load’s opening night black out. Your account of the venue manager’s instructions is totally inaccurate. She handled the situation professionally, calmly and with out the hysteria that is so mis-leading in your article. There was absolutely no mention of ‘stampede’ or a raised voice as your use of caps lock suggests. Her professionalism needs to be praised and your embelishments of facts and truth needs to be addressed.

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  14. dudie says:

    great article.

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  15. Adventeroux says:

    Seems such a pity to go all way to G Town and not enjoy yourself. Seems a bit unfair to blame the festival for a blackout – I would imagine hiring back up gennies for every venue would cost quite a bit ?

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  16. Ojjiw says:

    The statues at the end of the performance look like art to me…

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  17. shay says:

    Wonder what the fat cultured prick thought of the disgrunteld stoner prick sitting next to him.

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  18. marc says:

    . Jesh why does Mahala seem to be the refuge for these sort of folks. Little talent, real insight, criticality, soul, just another bitter useless stoner rant. I ventured to the site after six months hoping something might have shifted. Sadly not

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  19. Ziggy says:

    Why does Justin Nurse write under a non de plume here. Surely writers spewing such kak should at least have the courage to own up to it?

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  20. Nomalanga says:


    As one of the Fingo Festival organisers I need to clarify what you’ve put down on a public forum as it creates a seriously unfair perception of us as incompetent organisers.

    I find it a bit unfair as I look back right this moment on my emails to NAF from March and April.

    We applied for the Fingo Festival as with everyone else otherwise we would have not been able to apply for funding from the Eastern Cape Provincial Arts Council for their funding without proof that we were registered with the NAF. ECPACC rejects applications which are not already endorsed by the NAF.

    But the concept of the Fingo Festival was no ordinary ‘fringe’ event, it demand a lot of discussion and lobbying beyond ‘applications’ because we, the organisers, are not an institution and we had no money.

    Although much of our paperwork was in on time, there was more to hosting an event of that magnitude than just ‘paperwork’, it takes buy in and assistance from a range of people so that it can happen.

    We were turned down for a number of reasons; I won’t go into depth into those here. Some are related to institutional power of the NAF and perceptions of some of its managers on the value of community artists, and other reasons were our own lack of capacity in one specific instance when it came to fire certificates and insurance.

    We did have a champion in the National Arts Festival office who assisted us after we were confronted with a lot of brick walls.

    What’s important is WE ARE GRATEFUL AND APPRECIATE TO those people at the National Arts Festival office who assisted us.

    We held a lovely and successful Fingo Festival and we will be thanking all those who supported us to making it happen, including those at the NAF who showed us where our errors were.

    If I could speak for myself and not my colleagues, it is irritating when community organisers are cast as disorganised and thus ‘self-excluding’ from events by virtue of their supposed incompetence as you have in your post.

    There are issues of power and social perception at play but this is not the platform for raising them. These are not figments of our imagination; a lot has been said to us point blank to our faces as Black community artists by those with institutional positions.

    I am willing to participate in any discussions around these if asked to because I don’t think these are sensitive things, they’re just issues that can be spoken about and we learn a lot from open discussions so we love them.

    I’ll send you any evidence of our NAF paper trail you require, ask for my email details from the Arts Festival administrators or leave yours on here and I can email you.

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  21. Nomalanga says:


    Also let me further clarify – we never intended for Fingo Festival to be a fringe production.
    We applied for it to be an independent venue within the NAF in the township and much of the discussions that happened were around how we could raise both financial and institutional support for the idea as it had not been done before.

    For the record, every other artist that we have assisted as community arts activists got both ECPACC funding and the Festival registrations on time. We do know these processes and assist people with them successfully every year.

    Fingo Festival was entirely out of the box; that was the challenge we faced.

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  22. Tony says:

    Nomalanga – you make a good point and I’m glad that you have. My response to the earlier comment, though, was based on the assertion made that the Festival excluded Fingo for some sinister and inexplicable reason. My point is that there were reasons – and they were not sinister, but administrative. Whatever the challenges faced by the organisers of Fingo Festival were/are, the fact is that before any event can be formally part of the Festival certain hurdles need to be cleared (and insurance/fire certificates are among the most important because, without them, the safety of festivalgoers is at risk and if something goes wrong, and you are part of the official programme, then the Festival itself could be liable – we are a small organisation too, and we cannot take such risks). I know that resources and capacity are issues for Fingo Festival and lack of them does not equal incompetence….at the same time the Festival has a vast organisational job to do and if something falls by the wayside its because we need to move our planning forward efficiently, and not because, as the commenter said, “something stinks”.

    I’m glad that you found someone in the Fest office who supported you – and I can assure you that the Festival will continue to do so. As part of our post-Festival analysis we have already held discussions around the Fingo Festival and decided we need to work with you going forward so that what you do doesn’t sit on the margins of the Festival but as part of the heart of it. We’ll have those conversations with you shortly…meanwhile, well done for pulling off the Fingo Festival in the face of the challenges you encountered.

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  23. Nomalanga says:


    Thank you for your response. I appreciate that we don’t want to fall into conspiracy theories.

    You will appreciate too that structures and institutions do not have to operate covertly or conspiratorially to exclude.

    But I think you miss the point of my post; I’m taking issue with this statement which sums up how you construed our interactions with NAF offices

    “They applied to be part of the Fringe four months later – at the end of May. The programme was printed, booking had been open for a month. ”

    You also say the following:

    “And if 270 other artists could get it together in time, should we rally behind the one who slept through the deadline”

    This is just false.

    We made an error about fire certificants but we had submitted all information we could by March already because we would not have received ECPACC funding had we not.

    We even received a receipt from the NAF office as a deposit to include our artwork for Fingo Fest in the booklet. And they also understood that we couldn’t have a programme ready because we had no idea where the money would come from at that stage.

    An NAF official walked us through the fire certificate/insurance issue and helped us to resolve it once our error was discovered. In fact, she was very helpful.

    Because of this official we WERE ultimately included in the NAF and were allowed to use its logos.

    Your response seems to be addressing the issue of the NAF and its social positioning in Grahamstown as the host city which has something to do with the article and comments beneath.

    I think the above article was pointing out the broader social dynamics of exclusion in Grahamstown, those are the writers opinions.

    Yes there is a dynamic of exclusion in Grahamstown based on apartheid spatiality and economy and contemporary socio-economic problems. That is a discussion that all South Africans have to constantly have everywhere.

    As for our journey with NAF with regard to Fingo Festival, we were told in January already that our initiative would not be endorsed or supported by NAF and we would not be allowed to use its logos.

    A number of unfortunate and prejudiced statements were made by an NAF official to us about community artists. We can have that discussion privately, not on this forum.

    Subsequent to that, we then had to go it alone and we accepted that the NAF does not have to support us and that is NAF prerogative.

    After a long uphil in lobbying and persuading a number of new stakeholders, we were still able to pay our deposit to NAF as a venue within time and were allocated a PR number with which we were able to submit ECPACC applications.

    In fact, I emailed NAF assistant several times to please confirm our Festival status to ECPACC and even cc’d ECPACC in that correspondence in April already.

    Because we were going it alone and were in limbo due to funding, NAF assistants assisted us by walking us through some technical things.

    Your earlier post on this website implies that we just couldn’t get our act together and were now being used as the proverbial stick to beat the NAF with unfairly.

    The broader debate about how exclusion within the already vulnerable arts sector is on-going but please don’t lump us into the ‘disorganised artist’ category to make a point when NAF is being criticised for its role as a poweful local entity in Grahamstown.

    I acknowledge your above responses as an indication that you may not have intended to create that impression.

    Again, I speak personally and not for my colleagues.

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  24. Nomalanga says:

    Also, we heard much later on that the Minister of Arts and Culture and our local Mayor mentioned Fingo Festival mentioned us in their speeches.

    We take no responsibility for how our political officials conveyed the idea of Fingo Fest, we can only take responsibility for what we believe and what we did and said.

    But I do believe that our Mayor was well within his rights to mention the Fingo Fest since they were supporting it financially with public funds.

    We were however, shocked to start getting strange questions from media such as “are you trying to compete with the NAF?”

    These constructions of Fingo Festival as being “in competition” were completely unfair.

    How in the world could we have competed with NAF?

    Yes we contest the way in which space is organised during the NAF and other broader class dynamics in our town.

    However, it was just laughable that a minutely funded festival was then constructed as being in opposition to the Festival when we were in fact trying to be a part of the Festival.

    All we knew is that there was a need for a platform of that kind during NAF, we provided it and the attendance demonstrated this.

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  25. Tony says:

    Hi Nomalanga
    I don’t think you should construe questions from the media as any way indicative of the feelings of NAF – we got the same questions and were equally surprised.
    Let’s not have the debate in the comments section of Mahala because we’ll keep missing each other. And there’s not that much to debate, really, because I suspect our objectives are similar while our paths may differ, but there’s space for both.
    We have 348 days until the next Festival – let’s aim to use the time wisely and move forward. Call or mail me, we’ll talk.

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