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Get ready for the ultimate online celebration of SA arts

Published on 10 June 2020

Happening entirely online from 25 June-5 July 2020, the Virtual National Arts Festival will be remembered for marking the historic year the 46-year-old Festival went online due to Covid-19 restrictions. The Festival will be presenting work that speaks to these unique times, and will feature the results of many new collaborations, experimental forms and new ways to engage with the arts and audiences. 

The Festival made a call on 17 March 2020 under the leadership of new CEO Monica Newton to neither cancel nor postpone the annual pilgrimage for arts lovers, in favour of taking it completely online. In the 84 days since then, the team and numerous pioneering artists have been in full pivot, redesigning a whole new festival that will bring a curated South African arts experience to the virtual world stage. 

“It has been nothing short of a whirlwind,” says Newton of the process that has called on artists and the Festival team to drop everything and build a brand-new space. Just weeks before the Virtual National Arts Festival (vNAF) is poised to be launched onto the web, there is a programme of no less than 250 productions, which equates to more than 120 viewing hours of shows. And more are still coming in to the Festival’s vFringe platform, which will be accepting works from artists and putting them up in ticketed ‘windows’ for audiences to browse and select. 

The Virtual National Arts Festival (vNAF) will be entirely viewed through the portal of the newly redesigned website, with a daily programme of shows presented. A full festival pass that allows access to the entire curated programme, daily passes and passes to specific Festival elements such as the Standard Bank Jazz Festivals will be sold to local and international audiences via the website. 

The vFringe will offer video on demand, and visitors will be able to buy tickets to individual shows. The live portal will link to events happening on platforms such as Facebook, Instagram and Zoom. Visitors to the vNAF will also be able to explore the Virtual Green fair, featuring goods from crafters, traders and makers, as well as Virtual Galleries, where visual artists participating on the vFringe will display their works. 

The Standard Bank Jazz Festival remains a core feature of the Virtual National Arts Festival and the Creativate Digital Arts Festival, presented by Standard Bank, really comes into its own this year with its focus on the cutting-edge intersection of the arts and technology. This year’s Standard Bank Young Artists will be the first-ever to present their work online.

Rucera Seethal, the Artistic Director of the Virtual National Art Festival, says, “We have in this year’s programme a collection of strong artistic voices, rising in confusing and challenging times. Artists from across generations have found ways to comment, question, explore, reminisce, make jest, and scream out.  It is a festival with both weight and wings.” 

Visitors to the Festival will be able to explore the diversity of the South African arts offering, with some exciting international contributions rounding out the experience.

The National Arts Festival’s 2020 Featured Artist, musician Madosini Mpahleni, will be honoured through a documentary in an 11-part series across each day of the Festival. This series will feature a new song each day of the Festival, with a particular set of musicians performing and reflecting on the music. An account by Madosini on the meaning of the song and its inspiration will be included, as well as other contextual or archival video and photographic material. The narrative starts with Madosini’s earliest experience, learning music from her mother, and we will be able to follow her journey to the city and, ultimately, around the world where she has collaborated with musicians across genres and styles.

As Madosini is in the high risk category for Covid-19, no work could be made directly with her so this series forms an important archive of her unique form of music as well as of the life and career of its leading proponent. 

Collaborations in Performance and Film

The new format of the Festival has called on artists to reimagine  their work in a new  medium. Nicola Pilkington and Buhle Ngaba have done just that by collaborating on  a virtual version of SWAN SONG, Ngaba’s deeply personal coming-of-age story that explores the blending of places, memory, cultures and histories.  The work was first conceived by Ngaba during her time at the Royal Shakespeare company through a Brett Goldin Bursary award.

Former NAF Featured Artist and outspoken arts activist Mamela Nyamza premieres PEST CONTROL, a layered piece, partially informed by the mythological story of Narcissus, that looks at the diverse relationships and situations that are either deeply impaired because of self-service or repaired to enhance a practice of empathy for the whole good of the other. The piece is infused with commentary on destructive management in the arts.

Michelle Douglas’ BREATHING SPACE, with Alan Farber directing, takes a deeper look at circumstances and beliefs that shaped the ‘freethinking’ views of Olive Schreiner and how she placed enormous importance on principle versus personality. The play marks the centenary of Schreiner’s passing and is presented as ‘intimate theatre through the lens of a camera and very personal glimpses which would be unachievable on stage’.

IGAMA? narrates the story of five women who live in an archetypal South African community.  Bringing the camera’s gaze to stage allows playwright, theatre director, and filmmaker Slindile Mthembu to further explore her interest in ‘collapsing habitual, chronological and often one-dimensional narrative structures depicting black women and their lives’, to present a narrative that explores the complexities of being a black woman in the post-colonial world.

Visual Arts Journeys through Technology 

The global lockdown has sparked unprecedented use of innovative technologies to showcase visual arts. The Virtual National Arts Festival has harnessed these techniques and will present a series of intimate insights and representations from artists in the Visual Arts programme. 

Pitika Ntuli will premiere his solo work AZIBUYELE EMASISWENI (Return to the Source), which is also his first exhibition to comprise works sculpted in bone. The exhibition, curated by Ruzy Rusike, features 40 sculptures created from the bones of elephant, rhino, giraffe and horses. Whilst the dominant material used is bone – beads, shells, chains, computer circuit boards, pins, animal skins and marbles are integrated into the works. The show acts as a vessel to appreciate and connect with the depth and wisdom of African indigenous knowledge systems and African spirituality in the quantum age, and explores the healing potential of African art.

Simon Gush departs from his exhibition Land is in the Air, which opened at the Stevenson, Cape Town, October 2019.  For the vNAF, Gush joins Landiso Magqaza and Bhodlingqaka Mafani, Gary Minkley, Prishani Naidoo, Craig Paterson, Helena Pohlandt-Mccormick, Niren Tolsi, Leslie Witz and Andrei van Wyk (Healer Oran), to bring SOUNDING THE LAND, a curated set of music, reflection, discussion and investigative journalism, in dialogue with each other around issues from land dispossession and forced removal, to histories of disease confinement and control.  SOUNDING THE LAND  includes Simon’s film A BUTTON WITHOUT A HOLE (2019, 30min) the second film in his series Land is in the Air, which looks at dispossession and restitution of land in Salem, Eastern Cape.

The Music Plays On

The Cape Town Philharmonic has recorded five works at Artscape for release at the vNAF. This specially made programme, CAPE TOWN PHILHARMONIC ORCHESTRA: MUSIC IS THE MEDIUM, will be complimented by a recording of VERDI’S REQUIEM.

Audiences can also enjoy a recording of Peter Maartens performing six BACH CELLO SUITES, which were recently recorded for vNAF in Stellenbosch.

From the Eastern Cape, filmed at the Guild Theatre in East London for vNAF, XHANTI NOKWALI perform new music from their recently recorded first album Umthombo, produced by former Standard Bank Young Artist Nduduzo Makathini. They also share behind-the-scenes glimpses into the recording process, including footage featuring visits from contemporaries  Msaki and Dumza Maswana.  

Cara Stacey, Keenan Arendse and Mzwandile Buthelezi’s trio concert THE TEXTURE OF SILENCE sets out to complicate what ‘composing’ means by exploring the interface between composed and improvised music and visual art. It brings together various indigenous southern African musical instruments, jazz language, graphic notation for music and visual explorations. 

Former National Arts Festival Featured Artist Neo Muyanga reconsiders the dark and obscured past of ‘Amazing Grace‘ – a beloved hymn often sung to express solidarity with protesters calling for social justice and comradeship across the black diaspora. This new subversion, titled MAKING GRACE AMAZING, features new music and animations by Muyanga, who also conducts Khayelistha-based mezzo soprano Tina Mene and the popular São Paolo protest theatre troupe, Legítima Defesa

International Elements

In a major coup for the Festival, South African-born Adam Donen, called “a genius or a madman” by BBC News, will release the world premiere of his audio-drama NIXON IN AGONY at the Virtual National Arts Festival. It’s a fictional account of how Richard Nixon, the night before resigning from the presidency, sat alone, drunk, in the Oval Office. Through a one-hour audio drama/sound artwork  produced for stereo headphones, audiences will take a journey inside Nixon’s head, creating an immersive binaural experience of a man who knows his time is up. Steven Berkoff, revered British actor, author, playwright, director, plays Nixon with audio produced by  LA-based producer Robert Harder, known for his Grammy nominated work with Brian Eno and Herbie Hancock. The work is being adapted from Donen’s existing script for a holographic drama, which was due to premiere in the US later this year, to coincide with the 2020 election.

No stranger to the Festival, Swiss theatre director Boris Nitikin returns with ATTEMPT ON DYING, a live interactive theatrical work performed on Zoom. Audience members will participate in the experience, with each session limited to a small number of participants. This production will form part of the Creativate Digital Arts Festival.

South Africa’s own Third World Bunfight will show the filmed version of their VERDI’S MACBETH; a radical take on Shakespeare’s story of ambition, treachery and witchcraft within a milieu of multinational double-dealings, ethnic conflict, brutal militia, ‘blood minerals’ and glittering Chinese imports. Directed and designed by Brett Bailey, with music adapted by Belgium’s Fabrizio Cassol, ten South African opera singers and two South African percussionists collaborate with Serbian conductor Premil Petrovic and his No Border Orchestra. This acclaimed production toured to 31 cities worldwide between 2014 and 2017. The recording was filmed and edited in Naples under the direction of film maker Catherine Henegan.

Experiments in storytelling

For the vNAF, William Kentridge’s Centre for the Less Good Idea revisits their Season 7, which introduced audiences to the hybrid analogue and digital technologies of PEPPER’S GHOST, playing with illusion through live performance and projected recordings.  An 80 minute programme curated by the Centre, includes two brand new works and asks members of the audience to join a live webinar IN CONVERSATION WITH KENTRIDGE, MAHLANGU and PHALA.

Lo-Def Film Factory has created DIGITAL STORYTELLING FROM WITHIN THE PANDEMIC,  a workshop series in which participants are mentored over WhatsApp to create new pieces of original and experimental short films that speak to their experiences of the current crisis. 

South African dance legend Alfred Hinkel (Jazzart) will present DIE DANS VAN MY HEENKOMS, The Bolero Stories This documentary performance explores the significant political, social, cultural, academic and artistic relevance of Bolero – a piece Hinkel has been closely associated with through performance and study. The documentary looks at the piece through a lens of identity and probes ideas of dance vernaculars. Shot in O’Kiep in the Northern Cape, and performed in isolation by Garage Dance Ensemble with guest performers, this was a return to where Hinkel’s first dance company, Die Namakwalandse Dans Geselskap, was formed in 1976. The project created work for six unemployed people in Namaqualand.

Youth on Screen

For once, parents will be wanting their kids to take in some screen time as the Virtual National Arts Festival partners with ASSITEJ South Africa to bring ISISTIMELA SENDABA – The Story Train; in which eleven new, interactive stories will feature storytellers from across the African continent in  a programme aimed at children aged 5-10. 

Theatre maker Jade Bowers, the 2016 Standard Bank Young Artist for Theatre, presents MOTHER’S GRIMM, a play in parts. Co-produced with UJ, this is Jade’s first work for adolescents and sees Goldilocks, Cinderella and Snow White coming together to tell a coming-of-age story. 

Comedy on the Curated Programme 

NAF stalwart Rob van Vuuren presents THE VERY BIG COMEDY SHOW. For the virtual space, Van Vuuren considers a Letterman-like format, inviting guests in on a one-on-one basis. This year’s line-up includes comedians Lindy Johnson, Alan Committie, Robby Collins, Kagiso Lediga, and Tumi Morake for a night of laughs. 

Bringing disquieting laughter is Lynda Ward’s 2D animation piece CAKE THE MOVIE, Lazarus Themba’s short horror movie LOCKDOWN WENT WRONG, and Mike Scott’s cheeky full-length animated movie BRU & BOEGIE. More comedy will also feature on the vFringe programme. 

Webinars and Workshops 

The Critical Thinking webinars and workshops platform has previously spanned literature, poetry and current discourse. This year, vNAF embraces a growing familiarity with the webinar format, and puts together a series of conversations and interviews drawing from the programme, on topics in the arts, and beyond. The Festival also joins forces with the UNESCO Resiliart movement and the Wits School of Arts (WSOA) to programme a set of international conversations on pertinent issues confronting artists. 

Monica Newton, the CEO of the National Arts Festival, says, “This is the first Festival in our history that will allow audiences to see all the works presented. There is no fear of missing out! Sit back and let us take you on a journey of works curated to capture the creative heartbeat of South Africa today. We are extremely excited about this new adventure and congratulate all our artists on their vision and courage. They are leading us into the future; whatever that may hold.”

  • The redesigned Virtual National Arts Festival’s website will be live for browsing and early bird ticket sales from 18 June.


Updated – 10 June 2020: CPO information edited for clarity
Updated – 15 June 2020: Very Big Comedy Show line-up updated