Reuniting the performing arts

OF all possible things in life, uniting artists must rank as the most difficult to achieve. The very term unity is not a popular term in arts circles, as artists are always pre-occupied with how better one is against the other.

The intention is rarely about the value of arts than it is about the achievements, the awards, the stages, the legends, the greats that one has achieved.

It becomes sad that such good things could become the undoing of one of the most precious activities, the arts.

The disunity among artists has since become a weapon of oppression, and dividing of artists by opportunists who know how to use someone’s talent to the detriment of the very owner of that talent.

Articles, seminars and speeches have been made about the need for the unity of artists and within the art, culture, heritage and performing arts.

It is common knowledge that all these attempts fell flat, fuelling more enmity among those who once had noble intentions. To this end no one can claim to know better how best to unite artists. Before any structure is established, there are those sceptics who will ridicule the attempt without raising a hand to assist.

Some of the reasons that have been touted as weighing heavily against previous attempts to form a united arts body are both mythical and real. Many people believe government does not want a united body of artists.

This is a myth. It is not the duty of government to unite civil society. As such the Department of Arts and Culture four-year review of how SA, as a signatory to the United Nations, has promoted human rights ever since 2010 imposes upon UN member states to involve civil society in promoting and advancing a culture of human rights in our country.

By its very own admission the SA and Eastern Cape governments in particular, have admitted that while laws and policies have been enacted in this country over the years, their implementation has been lugubrious.

The other myth is that going to Johannesburg will provide better opportunities. There is a sense of truth in it, but a closer look at this shows it is not all true.

To start with SA is not a federal state, therefore there should not be any truth in people moving from one area to the other simply because there are no opportunities in their locality.

The current Deputy Director General of Arts and Culture, Monica Newton, while she was still lecturing at Wits University, used to say, “Democracy is for those who turn up.” To me this is where the matrix for the failure to unite artists finds its nurturing.

Inevitably when one embarks on advocacy there is no way your endeavours will succeed if you refuse interaction with politicians, businesspeople and academics.

To complicate things one has to remember that in politics there will be jostling for power and hegemony.

In September 2013 a group of artists met at the Red Location Art Gallery to explore the possibility of resuscitating attempts to form a united body of artists. A task team was established to work towards a framework that may endure.

The government has accepted that whilst there is still ping pong posturing about what the national development plan should contain, the vision of it should inform the structure and content of government spend.

For the cultural industry what does this mean? Among other things the national development plan 2030 vision purport is that government should prioritise “Incentivising the production and distribution of all art forms that facilitate healing, nation building and dialogue.”

My hunch tells me that this clause will be interpreted to mean “Incentivising Gauteng and Cape Town artists and productions to come and perform in Nelson Mandela Bay”. As the task group that was elected we are ready to report to artists and arts institutions our recommendations and urge artists and arts institutions to deliberate and discuss a programme of action, as well as forming themselves towards a path that will be characterised by an adage that nothing about arts without bona fide artists.

Most importantly, to elect a relatively legitimate leadership for the sector. The task group will assemble a conference of 100 artists that will be drawn from six clusters of Nelson Mandela Bay, a limited number of veterans, all functional institutions, as well as existing structures of artists, heritage and culture. The conference will be held on February 21. In collaboration with the Nelson Mandela Bay Municipality we will announce the venue and logistics soon.

Monde Ngonyama, facilitator of the Nelson Mandela Bay Arts Council, task team and general manager of Port Elizabeth Opera House

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