Arts festival will canvas nation

Louise Liebenberg

THE National Arts Festival will celebrate its 40th anniversary with an unusual project that will reach every corner of South Africa before culminating in an exhibition – perhaps even a book.

The Big Ideas, Tiny Canvas project was announced by festival chief executive Tony Lankester in Grahamstown this week along with several other initiatives, including a R6-million grant from the European Union that will be used towards the festival's Makana Arts Academy project over the next two years.

"It's been 40 years since the Grahamstown Foundation founded the National Arts Festival, which makes this a very important year for us," Lankester said at the 1820 Settlers National Monument yesterday.

"This gives us an opportunity to look back and reflect on the role of the festival – where we have come from and how we can do better in years to come."

He said hundreds of thousands of lives had been touched by the event since 1974 and that this had prompted the Big Ideas, Tiny Canvas idea, which would essentially be a "snapshot" of South Africans' sentiments towards the festival.

"We are inviting South Africans to share their feelings on the National Arts Festival – positive or negative – their memories, dreams, thoughts, reflections, frustrations, experiences, aspirations," Lankester said.

Thousands of blank postcards will be distributed around South Africa through the media and other means over the next few months and these will be "mini canvases" on which anyone with an association with the festival could write or draw.

Postcards will also be included in booking kits and handed out at schools and during the festival from July 3 to 13.

"The canvases can be used in whatever way the 'artist' wants to use them – they can write a poem, draw a picture, take a photograph and stick it on, write a letter, compose a piece of music and put the notation on it … the choice is theirs.

"We will also proactively approach people – artists, former Young Artist Award winners and prominent members of the public – and invite them to use the canvases. These will be postage-paid postcards so people just pop them into a postbox once they've done them."

Lankester said the postcards would form the basis of a "virtual and real-world exhibition and, hopefully, also a book".

"We might produce a book featuring the best, most creative or most exciting postcards, possibly even a T-shirt if any of the designs lend themselves to that."

Lankester also released the findings of a study done during last year's festival and led by professors Geoff Antrobus and Jen Snowball, of the Rhodes University department of economics. It found that the festival contributed about R349.9-million to the economy of Grahamstown and the Eastern Cape, and that visitors from outside the province spent an additional R27.3-million in the province before and after the event.

The festival also contributed about R90-million to the GDP of Grahamstown through direct and indirect spend, job creation and tourism activity.