South Africa’s National Arts Festival (June 28th-July 8th) isn’t hosted by Cape Town, Johannesburg or Pretoria as you might expect, but the small Eastern Cape city of Grahamstown, about halfway between East London and Port Elizabeth. The biggest annual arts event on the continent, it represents a breadth of talent and disciplines which would be the envy of many larger cities.
The official program is a doorstop of a thing, well over 200 pages long. It covers dance, theater, music, comedy and visual arts. It ranges from the Cape Town City Ballet’s production of Swan Lake to solo acoustic performances. They take the “national” component pretty seriously here, so the clear majority of artists are South African and cover the full spectrum of the Rainbow Nation’s arts practitioners.
Trying to see everything the NAF has to offer is a fool’s errand; it pays to study the program and book your must-sees in advance, then keep your eyes and ears open for buzz when you’re there. Among the components are a film festival, which this year features a section dedicated to local filmmaker Richard Stanley, as well as a major literary get-together and the Think!Fest lecture series, in which South Africa’s pre-eminent minds put the world to rights.
Music offerings include a jazz festival and the first NAF appearance by South Africa’s most successful musical export, Ladysmith Black Mambazo. As in any good arts festival there’s a “fringe” element for all kinds of avant-garde artistic activity, as well as visual arts in every imaginable medium. These are not just in galleries; one spectacular outdoor work is a mosaic made up of over 90,000 plastic bottle tops. Its ambitious scale and rainbow of colors are an apt symbol for the festival as a whole.