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Wednesday, June 11, 2014


(Ismail Mahomed. Pic by Suzy Bernstein)

Ismail Mahomed is the Artistic Director of the National Arts Festival. He writes in his personal capacity.
(Made available in arrangement with the Arts & Culture Trust (ACT) and the Dramatic, Artistic and Literary Rights Organisation (DALRO). See ACT’s website

Forty years is a milestone for any arts festival. This year the National Arts Festival celebrates the fortieth year since its founding in 1974. Until 2003, I spent 20 of those years trekking to Grahamstown as a freelance producer on the Fringe. In 2008, I found the mad courage to take up the position of Artistic Director of the National Arts Festival.

Reflecting on those early years as a Fringe producer, I guess there was much similarity between me and an alcoholic. For some reason, I trekked to one festival after the next in very much the same way as an alcoholic who was reaching out for his next bottle. Anyone who has produced work on the Fringe will acknowledge that there is nothing that quenches the thirst for creativity more than drinking from the bottle of euphoria that one finds at festivals.

Working as an independent freelance producer had its own shares of joys, disappointments, struggles and achievements. It takes hard work to initiate an idea for a production and to find willing artists who are eager to collaborate with you. Sourcing funding for productions is often a bigger back breaker.

There are many stories that I can tell about those early years of trekking to Grahamstown as a fringe producer. There are tales about vehicles breaking down midway en route to the festival city and about hiking lifts from passing motorists. There are stories about sleeping on thin mattresses in rented rooms so that saved funds could be used for paying for posters and pamphlets. There are tales about of joys and the pains that come with the glitz and the glamour of nursing the ambitions of directors, designers, writers, actors and a whole team of backstage people who passionately work behind the scenes to ensure that the curtains go up and that there are bums on seats.

Those 20 years of being a fringe producer were memorable and inspiring days. As difficult as they were, those early years of working on the fringe festival were the stepping stones that ultimately became my staircase to taking up the elevated position of Artistic Director of the National Arts Festival. It was no easy task to walk into the huge shoes of Lynette Marais, one of South Africa’s most celebrated arts administrators.

The challenge was enormous! How does anyone walk the tightrope knowing that all eyes in the arts sector are focused firmly on you? Taking the challenge required more than mad courage. It required a determination to succeed.

Whilst my first year as Artistic Director was filled with trepidation, each festival after that ended with a sense of euphoria. Success does not come by itself. It is rooted and interwoven with those with whom one surrounds oneself. Much of my success over the past seven years can be credited to the giants on whose shoulders I can continue to stand.

Being an Artistic Director of the country’s largest and oldest arts festival is no easy task. It requires much self-interrogation about how one compiles or curates a successful programme. It requires being prepared to place oneself at the fore-front of interrogating those who define what is art, who makes art, how art gets made, who has access to it, who funds it and just where it ends up after a festival season.

As a former mathematics teacher, my fascination of moving from the chalkboard to the theatre stage is fuelled by the opportunities that the arts offer to provoke those who try to define our society. The arts give us the opportunity to fall outside of the narrow definitions. I’m particularly excited about the arts when it becomes more than just a passing moment of entertainment. Whilst the arts offer us the opportunity to be entertained, it also gives us a greater opportunity to find ourselves at the source of strange encounters. It gives us opportunities to raise questions that are related to our being, our societies, our politics and our identities which we try to constantly re-define and re-align.

The more we try to define who we are, the more likely we are to fall into the trap of asking the question, “Eish! Is that art?”

Over the last 40 years that the National Arts Festival has been around, we haven’t yet found a singular homogenous definition for art. It is impossible that the generation after us will find that definition. Nevertheless, the ways in which we currently create art will inspire them with newer curiosities. For as long as they continue to feed that curiosity, art festivals will never become irrelevant. - Ismail Mahomed