To live in Grahamstown is to live at an address of amaz!ng privilege. We’re as spoilt as passengers on a cruise ship: we just wait here drinking aloe daiquiris in the sunshine until the world of art pulls up at the door.
At which point the world of art shoves our blue-sky thinking up our nostrils and shows us the colour of our own blood. This year, that blood is pumping with all its heart, straining and thundering, staunching and letting.
Keith Dietrich has authored a blood river that seeps with silent stealth into my consciousness long after I leave its quiet flow in the outermost corner of the Monument. Book Two of the artist’s Fragile Histories, Fugitive Lives: Justice and Injustice at the Cape 1700-1800 is a fan-folded ream of seamless cream paper that runs almost the length of the Ntsikana Gallery and which proves: (a) capital punishment never changed a thing in society, (b) a book is a beautiful thing, and (c) Margaret Atwood was right when she said that a word after a word after a word is power.
/ sentenced to being broken alive / having his knife hammered through his hand / sentenced to execution by firing squad / to hanging / to public display, sentenced to flogging and 10 years on Robben island / to 10 years in shackles / to being broken alive /
Between the beats of red ink, the names in black. Islands in the stream.
Down Lucas Avenue flows Dietrich’s blood, to the Albany Museum, where The Great Fish River, an excerpt from a book called Many Rivers to Cross, furls and flows its way down the wall of Battleground, a meticulously curated picking apart of land occupation and ownership by art historian Michael Godby.
And somewhere round there, where Somerset Street intersects with High Street or possibly a bit below that, but not much, is where the Festival artery starts to clog. Its real lifeblood – money – pools and backs up, right where traffic and feet are reluctant to go forward.
Exhibitors and vendors outside of the Somerset/ African axis are sounding off about feeling cut off. As a gifted eavesdropper I know that I am not alone in mourning the demise of downtown’s Festival life. It started when the white tents moved to their current neighbourhood. All the wood chips in the world couldn’t turn décor outlets into authentic atmosphere.
Attempts to perform transplant surgery on Fiddlers Green may have meant well but, in the years since affected traders protested the move, those attempts have all flatlined. And where is the promised Foto Fence this Festival? Perhaps the Creative City prefers the palisade variety.
Meanwhile, fine art followers find their pickings confined in ways apparently sanctioned by Festival management with two exhibition venues in the Monument now converted to performance venues (more money in shows, darling).
True, Cape Mongo is one Main exhibition drawing traffic downtown. But, by gleaned accounts, that was no management vision. Artist Francois Knoetze eschewed a mainstream venue in favour of consciously crossing the big divide with a view to making Festival more inclusive.
This is the poorest province of South Africa. For 11 days we live in one of the richest places on earth. Or not.
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