40th Anniversary: The National Arts Festival, Grahamstown

40th Anniversary: The National Arts Festival, Grahamstown

The National Arts Festival in Grahamstown, located in the Eastern Cape Province of South Africa celebrates 3 milestones in 2014; its 40th anniversary, the 30th anniversary of the Standard Bank Young Artists Award and 20 years of democracy in South Africa. The National Arts Festival is entrenched in the artistic landscape of South Africa and is a key event in the arts calendar. Ijeoma Loren Uche-Okeke speaks to the artistic director of the festival, Ismail Mahomed.

The National Arts Festival celebrates its 40th anniversary in 2014. That is certainly a long track record. How has the festival grown and evolved over the years since you’ve been there in your capacity as the director?

This year, the festival celebrates the 40th anniversary since its founding in 1974. I was very fortunate to succeed Lynette Marais, who built a very strong foundation for the festival. During my tenure, my key focus has been on trying to broaden the base of participation at the festival, in terms of both demographics and of the diversity of cultural and artistic representation on the programme. To this end, we have been able to introduce Performance, Public Art and Family Fare as three independent genres on the programme. We are also continually responding to the way in which a new generation of artists create work by blurring the lines of different genres, and with how they engage with digital media in their work.

After the success of the 2013 edition of the festival, what can visitors expect from this year’s event?

Compiling or curating each year’s festival is always an exciting adventure. One tries to grow on the successes of the past year but at the same time bring in newer initiatives to the programme to sustain artist and audience interests. This year’s programme is built around a number of anniversaries. Being the 40th year of the festival, it gives us time to reflect on the past, be critical about our current times but also visionary about the future. The 30th anniversary of Standard Bank’s sponsorship of the Young Artist Award gives us the opportunity to celebrate our country’s great artistic and cultural achievements and at the same time highlight Standard Bank’s passionate support for one of the country’s most prestigious arts awards. This year is South Africa’s 20th anniversary of constitutional democracy, so our programme also reflects on the intersection between art and our political history and landscape.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

The festival’s website has gone through quite a major change this year, it looks lighter, crispier and much more user friendly. As a key marketing tool, it sends the message that the festival continues to be forward-thinking progressively exploring new ideas and concepts. What do you have to say about this interpretation?

The festival continues to position itself as an exciting, innovative and dynamic leader in the arts sector. Everything about the way we work, from our online presence to our engagement with our constituencies, is aimed at reflecting that ethos.

Does your marketing strategy look inwards within the continent, and has the festival built any relationships or had any cross-border/cross-regional collaborations over the years it has been in existence?

Over the last number of years, the festival’s cross-border collaborations have increased substantially. Whilst we have been able to present much more international work, we have also seen so much more work from the festival being invited to international festivals abroad. This year, through the ANALOGUE EYE project curated by Brent Meistre, we have work from at least seventeen artists from the African continent represented at the festival. That is a major breakthrough in terms of our connectivity with the continent.

You obviously enjoy what you do very much, how long have you been at the National Arts Festival and how many more years do you plan to be a part of the festival?

This is my seventh year at the National Arts Festival. It has been a wonderful journey. There is still much that I would like to do in Grahamstown but I also believe that festivals are best served when artistic directors are not entrenched in those positions for extensively long periods. I love the European model in which artistic directors rotate between festivals. For now, I’ve been looking forward to this year’s 40th big bash. My eyes are set on 2016 when we commemorate the 40th anniversary of the Soweto Uprising and reflect on how that iconic event has impacted on our cultural history. I also have my other eye set on 2018 when we celebrate the centenary of Nelson Mandela’s birth and reflect on how the Mandela era has impacted on the arts. Whilst I would love to be in Grahamstown I am not limiting my options.

How do you see your role as director of the festival given the weight of the responsibility and the attendant pressures of having to continually re-invent the wheel so to speak?

Artistic directors of festivals are a combination of provocateurs, leaders and facilitators. Our role is to be the bridge between artists, audiences and funders. While much of that role can be mediatory, it is also necessary that festival directors sometimes provoke positions that will direct change.

What are the short and long term plans for the festival?

In the long term, the festival certainly wants to become a brand that does have a year-round presence. To a large extent, the broad range of work that goes from the festival to other stages, both nationally and internationally demonstrates that we are increasingly achieving that goal.


Ijeoma Loren Uche-Okeke is Omenka magazine’s Johannesburg Editor. She worked for over 3 years as the arts projects manager at Gallery MOMO in Johannesburg. She has over ten years of professional experience in the arts and culture sector as an administrator, curator and facilitator and worked actively as an arts and culture manager in both the creative and performing arts sectors in Nigeria, and more recently in South Africa. She has a BA (Hons) in Fine and Applied Arts, a PGD in Arts and Culture Management, an MA in Heritage Studies and postgraduate certificate in Environmental Policy from the universities of Nigeria, Nsukka, the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg and Bard College in the United States. She currently serves on the Board of the Dance Forum, the initiators and organizers of the Dance Umbrella Festival, and is the Regional Network Development Manager of the Visual Arts Network South Africa (VANSA) Steering Committee.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *