Fest creative director reflects


Art has the power to influence South African society in the current time of immoral and corrupt politics. 

Artists are once again using culture as a weapon, as they did during anti-apartheid protest theatre years, to defend democracy and fight for the original promise of liberation, says outgoing National Arts Festival creative director Ismail Mahomed.

ROUND TRIP: Outgoing National Arts Festival creative director Ismail Mahomed says artists are returning to protest theatre Picture: MIKE LOEWE
ROUND TRIP: Outgoing National Arts Festival creative director Ismail Mahomed says artists are returning to protest theatre Picture: MIKE LOEWE

Under his eight-year watch the festival has earned the Eastern Cape almost R3-billion at roughly R350-million a year.

Having achieved all the goals he set himself when he took on the post in 2008, Mahomed heads off soon to take up the position of CEO of the Market Theatre in Johannesburg which, together with The Space theatre, produced seminal anti-apartheid works in the 1970s and ’80s.

In an exclusive interview in his dungeon-like offices at 7am on Tuesday, he reflected on his “full journey” through 26 festivals and the perspective gained from his perch as one of the nation’s leading creative directors.

The festival was born 42 years ago through the efforts of Rhodes English professor Guy Butler and journalist fundraiser Thelma Neville, who on July 23 celebrates her 100th birthday in the Monument building she raised the money to build.

Mahomed recalls being the only person of colour in the auditorium back in the ’80s. But artists facing a repressive regime drove the festival to a new and radical place filled with brave voices and visions, a space he says became, for 11 days of the year, the home that democratic South Africans desired.

Protest theatre took hold and he recalls how white artists challenged conscription in the 80s in theatre pieces. “But when I was at the jazz I felt like I was in a different festival.

“It was a place of wonderful contradictions. I was attracted to the volatility and power of the Fringe which, as a space, was an essential part of the struggle.”

The 5pm free daily Sundowner concert, where artists produce snippets from their shows in the Monument’s fountain court, was “one of the most democratic spaces in Grahamstown, where the rich and paupers could sit side by side”.

The Festival in the ’90s was a celebration of democracy, but he found the art boring. “We had lost that powerful crutch of protest and were telling stories of reconciliation which were superficial. We were not telling our own stories.”

His successor, still to be chosen, will inherit a free-access Fringe with the potential to once again grapple with the looming issue of state censorship that is starting to stick its claws into society, he says.

It is up to today’s artists to take up the call of the previous generation and use “culture as a weapon of struggle”. “Now we are seeing artists step in to take ownership of our democracy.”

Shows such as Secret Ballot, OoMasisulu, Ruth First: 117 Days and As Ever, Bessie reflected this desire to exercise rights to freedom of expression enshrined in the constitution at a time when “moral leadership is sadly lacking”.

He questioned whether politicians who attended the festival with blue lights flashing were partying or keeping their ears to the ground to hear the rumblings. “They recognise the power of artists to influence and change whole societies.

“We are a nation still searching for … the dream that was promised, but we have new obstacles.”

These were immoral political leaders and pervasive corruption.

Turning to the Eastern Cape, he was pleased with festival-supported growth in the arts economy in Nelson Mandela Bay and, more generally, some “wonderful and exciting development among artists”.

He believes an obsession with annual ticket sales is based on a fear that the power of the festival to “move, shake and change us” could somehow be taken away.

However, the only real threat of the festival moving elsewhere lay in the inability of the local government to provide water and other infrastructure to the town.

He thanked the festival team upon whose shoulders he had stood.


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