For over thirty years I have loyally and enthusiastically attended our annual National Arts Festival in Grahamstown, initially as a visitor from out of town, but more recently as a Grahamstown resident. It has been an interesting ride all round, watching and experiencing the changes in our times and more specifically the changes within our country, as seen through the eyes of the artists who perform and exhibit here.
Every year I go in search of something or someone who will inspire me to reach beyond my comfort zone and motivate me to better my own performance. Inevitably, I find what I am looking for and often in the most unexpected places. This year was no different and my ‘ah!’ moment came as I walked into Fabricate, the retrospective exhibition of The Handspring Puppet Company in the Thomas Pringle Hall on the upper level of the Monument building. It was so unexpected, which made it all the more wonderful. At the entrance I was greeted by a magnificent rearing stallion.
Beyond the stallion, I was lured into a gathering of beautifully crafted wooden characters, personalities from a variety of well known shows that have been performed over the past 22 years in more than 30 countries around the world. The works are rich in texture and personality, making it difficult for the viewer to pull away.
I left the gallery feeling that I had experienced something really special. Good craftsmanship is rare these days, but this exhibition is so much more than technical ability. One can feel the involvement of the artists and the passion that lies behind each and every work.
With the images of the exhibition still in my mind, I was delighted to find out that Joey, a naturalistic puppet horse sculpted from cane and the lead character from the production of War Horse, would be out meeting the people in the gardens of Rhodes University. I got there just in time to see a very convincing horse, being led around the garden with a young child on it’s back. What was so incredible is that despite the two extra pairs of legs of the puppeteers, Joey was a horse and I had to keep reminding myself that it was in fact a puppet.
The other exhibition that I found exciting was Christine Dixie’s To Be King. Visually mesmerizing, this multi-media exhibition stirred up feelings of transience, the impermanence of things and memories of times gone by. Beautifully executed, the ever changing scene kept one riveted to the screen.
Another exhibition that had a similar effect was Homing, by Jenna Burchell, though her method was completely different. Entering the exhibition space, one was invited into a web of vertically placed copper strings, that on touching emitted different sounds, recalling a sense of place. Unlike Dixie’s work, that was completely engrossing on a private, individual level, this exhibition allowed for interaction with other viewers. As I touched a string the bells of a cathedral rang out, at the same time as another viewer’s string emitted a different sound. It allowed for play and repetition, and soon we were making music.
In the Standard Bank Gallery of the Albany Museum, it was a treat to see the work of previous Standard Bank Young Artist award winners in the exhibition 14/30, in particular Walter Oltmann, William Kentridge and Peter Schutz, whose work I have always found inspiring.
Wim Botha’s exhibition in the adjoining room, was challenging and fascinating. The centre piece of the show, Study for the Epic Mundane (2013), is powerful, constructed of books that have been bolted together and sculpted into two figures, whose relationship is a little ambiguous. Many of the other works have been sculpted in a similar vein, all using unusual everyday materials…books, polystyrene and picture frame moulding.
There were a myriad of other exhibitions at this year’s Fest, but unfortunately time ran out and I wasn’t able to see them all. Those I did see have helped ‘to fill the well’, and now it’s time to return to my studio to see what I can produce. No more excuses. It’s time to get down to work.
The visitors have gone, and as Grahamstown quietly readjusts to normality, discarded posters lie flapping in the wind. We set our sights on Festival 2015 and all that this will bring.