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Thursday, December 31, 2020


(Argentina's MANDRAGORA CIRCUS performed at the Sharjah Fringe Festival in January 2020)

Monica Newton, CEO of the National Arts Festival in Makhanda (Grahamstown) looks back on the year 2020.

“When we look back on 2020 here at the National Arts Festival, what is most astonishing is how quickly and completely our collective reality changed. We began the year by packing our bags in preparation for our first Middle Eastern fringe festival; the Sharjah Fringe – a brand new and exciting adventure for our production and technical teams.

“Meanwhile, back in Makhanda, our newest team members (including myself) were unpacking our bags, getting to know our neighbours and where to find the best daily coffee fix. With all of us scattered across the globe, we spent hours as a long-distance team convening over the shape of the 2020 National Arts Festival, finalising artist confirmations and discussing programmes. Little did we know that this long-distance format was just a dress rehearsal for what by now feels like a million hours on Zoom.

“In February, news filtered in of the rapid spread of Covid-19 and the ground beneath our feet started to shift. On March 17, in the face of a strict nationwide lockdown, the National Arts Festival made the announcement that, for the first time in history, we would hold the Festival online.

“From there it was a blur of curveballs, ridiculous hours and sleepless nights, astonishing agility and outstanding innovation. The incredible Festival team and the artistic community pivoted at warp speed, creating new work and working in completely new ways to make the Virtual National Festival 2020 possible. The virtual curtain went up on June 25 and, until July 30, the vNAF 2020 was a multi-faceted lockdown escape exploring South African and international creativity in an entirely new realm.

“As our artists wove their stories into pixels, we issued links not ink on paper. We made our mistakes but worked tirelessly to correct them and ultimately created a remarkable experience in the blink of an eye – bringing a new digital heartbeat to life and opening our eyes to extraordinary possibilities for the arts as over 80,000 global visitors clicked onto our #VNAF.

“Behind the scenes during the filming of Mamela Nyamza's “Pest Control” at the Virtual National Arts Festival)

“In stark contrast to our successes, the Festival team also experienced devastating losses this year. We lost our beloved team member Sanda Mankayi and the wise and formidable former Festival firebrand, Lynette Marais. As an industry, we have seen lives, families and livelihoods lost to pandemic. Cancelled shows and gigs, empty theatres, awards and celebrations deferred. There is despair among artists who are still struggling to make it through this uncertain time and very real concerns about what 2021 holds.

“As we turn the page on this “annus horribilis”, so much remains uncertain but we do know that we will have to continue innovating and adapting to reinvent ourselves and our Festival. At its best, the Festival is a reflection of society - the good, the bad, the hilarious, the ridiculous, the surreal… Through our artists, the challenges, triumphs, losses and gains of 2020 will no doubt become the seeds of stories; hard lessons and gentle moments shared and the pain of loss deeply felt and hopefully, ultimately healed.

“2021 will see a National Arts Festival; come what may.

“We would like to thank every single person who bought a ticket, liked a post, sent a message of support and cheered us on as we made our way through this year. Your support for the arts remains the inspiration for all of us to continue. I would like to thank the Festival team whose unrelenting passion and love for the arts and experiences saw us through some truly hair raising moments and whose endless capacity to adapt created a Festival out of bytes and pixels; and also our Board who have guided, advised, supported and counselled us through the year.

“As I write, the dreaded second wave has arrived, yet another test of our resolve and resilience. If you are choosing to stay home, we've got you covered - join us on the vFringe where 176 shows and 45 visual art exhibitions are waiting to entertain you and your family!

“From the Festival team, we wish you and your loved ones a safe and happy holiday season,” concludes Monica Newton.


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