Local stakeholders have welcomed the Festival’s return this year to include its traditional live format, at its Makhanda home. The National Arts Festival this week announced a multi-medium and multi-city format for this year’s event.
The National Arts Festival Experience will revive its live 11 day National Arts Festival in its home city of Makhanda from 8-18 July (Makhanda Live) and stage a National Arts Festival Online which will be entirely online in July. And, for the first time ever, the National Arts Festival will present a series of shows, in partnership with Standard Bank, in cities across the country. The collection, called Standard Bank Presents, will give audiences across the country a taste of what the Festival has to offer from 17 June to 4 July 2021.
“We are curating a tighter, more intimate Festival in Makhanda and we do have to work very carefully around the Covid protocols, but we think it will be an opportunity to feel the pulse of a Covid-impacted arts world and to hear artists speak from live stages. We invite audiences to come and share this important moment with us.”
The NAF successfully transitioned into an online festival in 2020, drawing a global audience of over 83 000 visitors and breaking new ground for the South African arts sector. “Online experiences are here to stay and we are excited about further integrating this element into our offering,” said Newton.
New economic opportunities
While artists and local businesses supported last year’s online move as a necessary innovation, they’re very pleased at the prospect of having real live audiences back in theatres, and booked into local accommodation establishments and restaurants.
Grahamstown Business Forum Chairperson Richard Gaybba said, “Of course, not having a ‘live’ National Arts Festival was a loss economically and socially. However, Ms Newton and her team innovated and provided spectacular online content and new economic opportunities.
“This year, we are thrilled to have a hybrid of online content and live content, and I am sure many beautiful surprises. No doubt that this will boost the local economy and provide much needed local economic opportunities.
“Bravo to the NAF Board and Ms Newton and her formidable team!”
Co-ordinator of the Kwam eMakana township homestay association, Buyiswa Gora, said the Covid lockdown in 2020 had been a shock.
“At first we thought it would just be a few weeks’ break. We didn’t know it would carry on for such a long time.”
Lockdown 2020 was difficult – but missing out on Festival guests made it even more so.
“You know, Festival is like Christmas to us homestay owners. We don’t often get guests who stay throughout, but lots of visitors to the Festival will stay four or five days. That’s income we use to upgrade our accommodation so when they come back the next year, they’ll notice the difference. At least maybe this year we will get some of those visitors back.”
The White House B&B owner Jolandi Botha said not having a live event in 2020 had a devastating effect on the hospitality industry, as did the cancellation of most of the annual events held in Makana.
“We were effectively closed for several months. The biggest loss in event revenue was the NAF cancellation.
“The online National Arts Festival last year was definitely a new experience to many and although we missed the interaction with our lovely guests and gifted performers we were thankful that it exposed local businesses to people who wouldn’t have necessarily thought about visiting Makhanda Grahamstown.
“We are however encouraged and delighted by the decision of Monica Newton and her team to return to live performances for the 2021 NAF. We view the NAF as partners in our business, providing a quality accommodation experience to performers, participants and Festinos. The National Arts Festival is an integral part of our city’s character as much as it is a South African performing arts treasure.
“All enterprises experiences cycles, and with our 20-year history we understand there will be challenges and are proud to say that we took some initiative to get beyond and now look forward to the returning of good old times and new good times. Excited to share and create some more amazing experiences and memories!”
Bring back livelihoods
Artist Xolile Madinda, said live performances and audiences this year would make a big difference.
“Of course we had to adjust to life under Covid and we fully supported the move to a completely digital edition last year,” Madinda said. “But live performances mean local artists can get a paying audience.”
It was not only jobs for artists, but also employment at accommodation establishments and other Festival-time services.
“Audiences at live performances signals that this is not a city that is hostile to its own artists,” Madinda said. “So we really support it.”
Madinda is a founder of the Black Power Station in the Industrial Area, a hub of arts and crafts, and Director of the Fingo Festival: a free curated programme held at township venues during the main Festival.
“Even the Black Power Station (BPS) has been struggling big time. We are longing to have our audiences back.”
Madinda said the mission of the BPS was to bring back and recreate livelihoods.
“So our role is to market the work of artists and to spread awareness and consciousness of the arts.”
Whether there would be a Fingo Festival this year would depend on funding.
“We are willing to organise it, and township residents are always keen to participate and attend. The challenge will be controlling numbers to keep it Covid-safe.
“We’ve got a routine with indoor venues: first we limit the numbers and make sure it’s properly ventilated.
“Then at our BPS events we get everyone to go outside every hour or so.
We remained visible
Director of Makana Tourism Sue Waugh said the fact that the Festival happened last year – even if online – was significant.
“No live performances during Festival last year meant that tourism took a knock,” Waugh said. “There were few or no people staying in our bed and breakfasts and hotel establishments, buying food or souvenirs.
“Having said that, just over 83 000 people visited the Festival’s site for information and to watch online performances and R146 million in media coverage (across print, electronic and social media platforms) was generated, not only for the National Arts Festival but also for our City and region.”
Waugh said the fact that there was a continuation of the Festival in an online format in 2020, despite Covid, was significant.
“After 47 years of its existence, that was very important for the NAF brand and for Makhanda. We remained visible.
“The National Arts Festival did such a great job in bringing us something new, unique and exciting; attracting new audiences that will hopefully now be coming to Makhanda this year to attend the live Festival for the first time,” Waugh said.
“There is just something special about being together. We are very happy that we will once again be welcoming festinos to Makhanda!”