It’s 2015, yet two white men grace the cover of the Festival programme. One of them is dressed as a woman and one has his hand in a puppet of a black man – but still. It’s transgressive, rogressive and regressive at the same time. Transgressive, because much of Pieter Dirk Uys and Conrad Koch’s undoubted comedic force comes from the ways in which they trouble the boundaries of gender and race through their characters, Evita Bezuidenhout and Chester Missing. Progressive, because their bodies of work reflect their commitment to thoughtful politics, and challenge their audiences while they entertain them.
But it’s regressive because, well, again, they’re two white guys; members of the demographic of our creative economy that have historically
been offered the most institutional support, media coverage and popular acclaim. (Something that, as part of that demographic, I can attest to.) Chester and Evita are the figureheads for this year’s Festival Featured Artist, which, curiously, is not an artist but rather a genre: the fuzzy art of satire. Perhaps it tells us something of the state of our country – and the world at large – that satire should be championed as the most important thing happening in the 41st year of the National Arts Festival.
The recent murder of staffers at Charlie Hebdo – the French satirical magazine and purveyor of controversial, often racist cartoons – obviously still sticks in the mind, while Chester Missing’s 2014 court victory against harassment charges from ideologically-suspect singer Steve Hofmeyr was seen as a legal victory for unfettered public criticism.
But while it’s an offbeat choice on the Festival’s part, it is still kind of vanilla, both in flavour and appearance. Surely the value of freedom of expression and freedom of artistic creativity – as it is enshrined in our Constitution and quoted on the Festival programme – lies in the vast diversity of the arts in South Africa, as they are represented in the hundreds of productions happening in Grahamstown this year. Satire can take a multitude of forms and offer a wide spectrum of philosophies and perspectives to diverse audiences. But, unfortunately, the Festival this year envisions it as the domain of white men, whose philosophies and perspectives are already hegemonic in the arts, however depreciating, self-aware or seemingly transformed they become by inhabiting someone else’s identity.
Even if it’s an understandable choice, in the end it might feel like something of a missed opportunity, particularly as satire is present in the Festival programme year on year. Both Evita and Chester will fill Grahamstown’s theatres one hundred times out of one hundred –for good reason, as they’re genuinely great at what they do. And their presence on the programme is valuable, especially for their affirmation that identity is flexible, and that you do not have to be bound by the body into which you’re born.
But even so, we should also think about how the Festival can re-imagine who the emblems of freedom of expression in our society are – after all, satire is only one flavour of expression. Might it not be more of an artistic statement to look past the obvious?
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