The arts have always been a force for social change particularly in South Africa where, under apartheid, it was artists who created struggle theatre and delivered messages so subtle in their complexity that they stumped the culturally obtuse apartheid police, or so loud that artists were arrested and theatres closed. Since the demise of apartheid, artists have continued to drive the voice of social change by telling untold stories, healing wounds, and calling out the truth.
Since the start of the pandemic, the voices of artists have fallen quiet as their main source of income and platforms were taken away. Many were forced to sacrifice their creative space, both physically and emotionally, to cope with the added pressure of being a full-time partner, teacher, or primary caregiver. Those with no other means of sustaining themselves lost their homes, cars, and the very instruments they use to create their art.
The situation has become grim with losses that include beloved friends, colleagues, and leading industry lights. Worse hit by lockdowns than any sector in South Africa, artists have been left high and dry. The National Arts Festival has responded to the void by providing a digital stage in 2020 and 2021. This year’s programme was a space for us to hear the voices of women artists in a moment of pause and reflection.
It is interesting that artists were looking back. Often within history, it is the uncomfortable silences that speak louder than words. “Inertia: Ubungeyo Mpazamo/ Elwandle/ Nithi Ngubanina Lo Makanda?” a three-part performance curated by Zodwa Skeyi-Tutani interrogated the relevance of collective memory as a tool for the undressing and re-dressing of communal “wounds” that exist in the afterlife of colonial rule and the violence of the apartheid era in the context of Makhanda.
Another piece of painful South African history that came under creative scrutiny was the Anglo-Boer War. In “History [TBC]: Refocusing the South African War”, artist Maureen De Jager interrogated the way in which “official” histories that “mythologised” the Boer concentration camps left the black concentration camps out of the historical record for successive decades.
In a more personal tribute, “Traces of Memory”, a memorial to the late Themba Mbuli, co-founder and Associate Artistic Director of Unmute, resounded with the deep grief and loss of a loved one as portrayed through dance. By reflecting on Mbuli’s boundary-pushing approaches, current Artistic Director, Nadene McKenzie, used this creative space to reflect on his artistic contribution to society, carry forward his legacy of inclusion, and collectively heal the company he left behind.
Edging into interesting new territories for digital art was “AnotherKind”, a piece which drew from Amy Louise Wilson’s Distell National Playwright award-winning script “Another Kind of Dying”. Through multimedia storytelling, Amy Louise mourns a piece of theatre that never existed while echoing the play’s original themes of detachment and loss. Wilson represents a new movement of women artists who are collaboratively telling stories and shifting realities using multi-media platforms. Previously confined to film-making, digital art and the fast-evolving 4IR space has the potential to redefine social agency through its reach, message, and ability to capture younger audiences.
Although muted for now, the long-term impact this pause has on society cannot be underestimated. Survival and uncertainty have driven us to go within, to heal wounds, and to find our calm in this chaos as we prepare to re-emerge. There are glimpses of what lies ahead. 2020 Standard Bank Young Artist Lulu Mlangeni’s piece KGANYA is a loud and rumbling voice calling us to rise, pull ourselves up by our bootstraps, and move towards freedom from this moment of absurdity, asking that we conjure the light and form to rise again. This bubbling call to action is likely to spill into another brewing narrative of rage as, on and off the stage, artists like Sibongile Mngoma and Mamela Nyamza are joined by growing voices of discontent as women (and men) continue to fight for artists’ rightful role to be recognised, professionalised, and to take their place in leading social change and healing when the world needs it most.