In approximately 1974, a project to celebrate art in South Africa began. First, it was originally a project for the 1820 Settlers Foundation (also known as the Grahamstown Foundation) (esat.sun.ac.za). It started small, however is now one of the main events in South Africa. It is “the biggest annual celebration of the arts on the African continent” (southafrica.net). Therefore, people see it as one of the largest in the world. The National Arts Festival is viewed as a great event. It is the longest running performing arts event in the world.
The National Arts Festival lasts 11 days. According to sahistory.org.za, this occurs during the last week of June into the first week of July. The festival happens in the Eastern Cape province of South Africa. It was given the official name “The National Arts Festival” around 2002 and identifies as a “Section 21 company” (esat.sun.ac.za). This means that it acts as a non-profit corporation. It is important to note that the festival is known as being in Grahamstown. However, the city’s name was changed to “Makhanda” in 2018.
The website iol.co.za states “Makhanda was a warrior, war doctor, philosopher and prophet.” The renaming of the town was to remember Makhanda. In a lot of ways, Makhanda represents the meaning of the festival. Makhanda was a warrior who used their strength and heroics while fighting for their community of people. Therefore, this festival was created to represent people using their strengths to bring art to their communities. The meaning behind Makhanda the person and the festival goes hand in hand with one another.
“…hybrid festival of the arts, anchored in our home of Makhanda, accessible online and coming to you in cities across South Africa” (nationalartsfestival.co.za). This is on the homepage of their website as their objective. This festival showcases many art forms. From “…theatre…dance, opera…cabaret….craft art, classical music to jazz, poetry readings to lectures” (southafrica.net). The National Arts Festival is separated into two sections called the “main programme” and the “fringe programme.”
Currently, the “main programme” hosts “more than 360 events with over 1200 performances” (sahistory.org.za). Events consist of artists local to the South Africa area, and showcase primarily unknown artists. It is said that the program runners consider three aspects when deciding who performs. These include the art, creation and costs of each act. The committee takes pride in showing unique, excellent, and diverse acts. However, it is really important to note is that they aim to showcase Black artists. Unknown Black creators are given a chance to be in the spotlight.
In 1979, the second program of the National Arts Festival titled the “fringe programme” was officially added to the festival. This section still consists of art events, however it is different from the main programme. This is because there is “no selection criteria” (sahistory.org.za). These events have now grown to host over three hundred performers. It is also important to note that “85% of their box office sales accrue to them directly” (sahistory.org.za).
In 2012, a third category was added to the National Arts Festival titled the “featured artists programme.” This was designed to highlight South African artists focusing on current social justice discourse. Therefore, it is important that this was added to the festival because these topics are important and necessary to discuss in our current society.
Since approximately 1981, the National Arts Festival has also given out “young artist awards” and “fringe awards.” The fringe awards (known as the “Standard Bank Ovation Awards”) began around 2010 according to wikipedia.org. For the young artist awards, young people who are not well known are recognized for achievements in their field. Prize winners are given money and a guaranteed spot in the main programme for the next year. Up to five awards are given in the various categories throughout the festival.
For the fringe awards, art performances in the fringe programme are recognized for their uniqueness and merit. Out of all winners, Gold and Silver awards are given for the top choices. The Standard Bank Ovation Awards comes with being recognized by companies and possibly being offered various performance opportunities. There is also a cash prize awarded as well.
The National Arts Festival began as a small way for the arts to be celebrated in South Africa. It has expanded and provides hundreds of artists the ability to showcase themselves and their hard work. This festival allows for unknown artists, specifically Black artists, an opportunity to become nationally known at one of the world’s largest arts events. So, it is necessary that this festival continues to grow and allow for more unknown artists to gain public recognition. To sum up, the National Arts Festival provides an outlet for people who do not otherwise have a chance at getting their work seen. Therefore, this festival is very important to young Black artists and should be celebrated to the fullest extent.