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2021 National Arts Festival Brought Work to Artists in Crisis

Published on 6 August 2021

2021 Silver Standard Bank Ovation Award winner Is'Thata Dance with Initiation. Photo by Mark Wessels.

The 47th National Arts Festival took place against a back-drop of turmoil. Planned as a hybrid event, the Makhanda-based Festival looked forward to reuniting with a small dedicated audience and community of artists for a live festival; but it was not to be as the country was moved to Level Four lockdown and all gatherings were banned. Prior to the enhanced lockdown, a new aspect of the Festival, the Standard Bank Presents platform, was successfully hosted in Cape Town and Durban for small live audiences, however the Johannesburg leg of the programme went ahead without audiences due to spiralling Covid-19 cases.

In the end, the Festival was staged online; re-orientated and re-launched in a record ten days as a digital experience for all. Says CEO of the National Arts Festival, Monica Newton, “One of our clearest intentions for this Festival was to provide a space that would see artists and technicians working again. We are keenly aware of the severe impact of Covid-19 on artists’ livelihoods, and we also know that they need to be seen and heard by audiences and their fellow artists from whom they have been cut off for so long. We are immensely proud of all the works that were part of the Festival programme this year and the contribution made to sustaining the arts sector as well.”

The Eastern Cape Department of Sport, Recreation, Arts and Culture's pop-up shop for Eastern Cape crafters in the Bay West Mall in Gqeberha
The Eastern Cape Department of Sport, Recreation, Arts and Culture's pop-up shop for Eastern Cape crafters in the Bay West Mall in Gqeberha

One of the Festival’s key sponsors is the Eastern Cape Government and the Eastern Cape’s Department of Sport, Recreation, Arts & Culture created plenty of opportunities for Eastern Cape artists to shine through the Eastern Cape Showcase, in the curated and jazz programmes and at home, where physical pop-up shops were arranged in Gqeberha for crafters hard-hit by the pandemic.

Says Eastern Cape MEC for Sports, Recreation, Arts and Culture, Ms Fezeka Nkomonye, “We were determined during these challenging times to ensure that our artists had an opportunity to transition from relief to recovery within their own creative spaces. The Department of Sport, Recreation, Arts and Culture applauds their willingness to rise to the occasion.”

While the Festival still attracted a supportive and enthusiastic community of online fans, the number of visitors to the website was lower than in 2020. Newton puts this down to a combination of factors, “Our timeline hit several curveballs that we had to react to and it was a tough year to hold the attention of audiences. Online fatigue has really set in for many people and the unrest in South Africa happened right in the middle of the Festival so many people’s attention was rightfully on the situation that we found ourselves in as a country.” The Festival once again attracted an overseas audience, particularly from the United States, the United Kingdom, Ireland, Sweden, Indonesia, Canada, India and Nigeria.

Newton believes online is here to stay. “We are hoping to return to live events and experiences as soon as possible but there are some interesting possibilities for the arts online and we want to incorporate them into future festivals. There are audiences around the world with a specific interest in the arts in Africa, there are expats all over and, here at home, there are people who choose the online experience or are unable to join our live events – all of whom can get their fix of the arts online.”

Even though the Festival period has ended, the Fringe Live remains online for visitors to explore. Audiences are encouraged to look out for all the Standard Bank Ovation Award winners, including those shows that took the Gold, Silver and Bronze Awards.

As to whether the 48th National Arts Festival will be live in Makhanda, Newton says that 2021 certainly showed that Festivals need to have a plan B, C and D, “We have our sights set on a live Festival in 2022 but we know we can offer our programme online if we need to, with two online Festival’s behind us we’ve learnt a thing or two! We are all craving a return to the magic of a live festival in Makhanda and we will watch with interest as other countries in the world with high vaccine prevalence reopen their live festivals and gatherings so we can learn from their example. Fingers crossed for next year.”

Use Your Words to Support the National Arts Festival’s Fringe Artists

Mommy Mommy by Thami Majela and Tebogo Gxubane is one of the shows on the Fringe Live. Photo by Mark Wessels.

Long-time National Arts Festival partner, Standard Bank, has designed a creative and simple way for arts-lovers to support the artists who brought work, at their own expense, to the 2021 National Arts Festival Fringe.

Simply visit Standard Bank’s Bank of Dreams portal here and leave a message for the artists. Standard Bank will convert these messages into cash that will be shared with all the Fringe works ‘staged’ during the Festival period up until 31 July 2021. It costs nothing to do and helps artists dream bigger. The goal is to raise R 500 000 by the end of August 2021.

The National Arts Festival Fringe can be found here