Klein Karoo National Arts Festival preview
by Kathryn Smith
The Klein Karoo National Arts Festival hits Oudtshoorn on March 30. This is visual arts director Clive van den Berg's third and final year at the helm, and the number of exhibitions on the main festival bears testimony to his success - and Sasol's financial dedication - in turning the festival into THE desirable destination for some of South Africa's hottest young (and not so young) contemporary artists.
While Grahamstown has been criticised for being too big and without the kind of focus festivals need to avoid becoming glorified fleamarkets, the KKNK and the smaller Aardklop Arts Festival in Potchefstroom have been lauded as creating a trend in local arts festivals, catering to niche markets and attracting a range of sponsorship and investors that do, at times, succeed in making most artists' fantasies a reality - realising that elusive strategy of bringing business and arts closer together.
With performing arts, drama, cabaret, dance, music and a range of the usual suspects that make appearances at festivals (endless foodstalls, beer tents, sprawling craft market, people in silly hats), you'd think the visual arts, especially of the "contemporary" or "conceptual" sort, might be in danger of becoming eclipsed by the spectacles of live entertainment and celebrities roaming freely in the streets. To some extent, this is true. The festival has come under heavy criticism in its early days for being too partisan towards Afrikaans culture (but the festival did begin with this mandate clearly stated) and lately, for allowing "entertainment" to overshadow "serious theatre".
Be that as it may, Van den Berg has managed to develop an environment where artists are confident they and their work will be represented in the best possible light, all contingencies of festivals taken into account. He has appointed independent curators to work under his overall directorship (myself and Marcus Neustetter are two examples), which has delivered some interesting results over the last two years. He has also introduced a sense of continuity and development in two exhibitions, namely 'Self' and 'Body', which have grown over three and two years respectively, each reaching completion this year.
�Self' has involved inviting 10 artists per year to produced life-size linocut prints. The motivating aim behind this project is to reinvent the often negative or limited perceptions around the medium. Considered to be a "poor" medium, lino has enjoyed a renaissance at the hands of some of South Africa's best known as well as emerging artists, who've attempted to answer and often extend beyond the parameters of Van den Berg's challenge. This year, the full complement of three years' worth of linos will be exhibited together.
It is the second and final year of 'Body', a project Van den Berg asked me to take on to try and refigure and re-present how we as South Africans might think about the politics of the body, whether personal, historical, experiential. Spurred by the fact that "body politics" as a discourse is old and tired (and often imported) as well as the impact our Constitution has had on how we think about ourselves within society at large, last year the exhibition looked at the factors that inform the construction of identity, mutable as it is. 'Rest and motion' was a deliberately rather frenetic and fragmented exhibition of visual "soundbytes" that selected particular moments in South African visual art production from the recent past (late 1970s) until now. With some 20 artists it was a big show, and criticised for being too piecemeal (see Sue Williamson's review from last year).
This year, I have asked artists to respond to processes of or their experiences of sublimation. As a psychological term it refers to acculturation or refinement. In science it refers to transforming a substance, usually with heat, from one state to another. As abstract as it sounds, a limited selection of eight artists have risen to the occasion to present a series of installation, video and sculptural works that almost negate the body, or rather refer to it through its absence. Participating artists are Candice Breitz, Paul Edmunds, Brad Hammond, Moshekwa Langa, Jo Ractliffe, Colin Richards, Usha Seejarim and William Scarbrough.
Sasol is a primary sponsor for the main visual arts programme, which this year includes some 15 exhibitions with both local and international participants. Many of the international artists on the programme have some connection to South Africa, usually having worked here or completed a residency programme. This desire to return, particularly in the context of a small town's arts festival, speaks to the stimulation the South African context provides as well as a certain freedom of practice that working here provides. This kind of comment is reiterated time and again by visitors from abroad.
Claudette Schreuders is this year's official festival artist. She will show a collection of new work titled 'Six Stories' in the CP Nel Museum. Another major exhibition is a collection of new work by Peter Schütz, who turns 60 this year. The exhibition is a tribute to a man who has remained one of the pillars of the South African art scene, and who has influenced and inspired many students during his long teaching career. His and Schreuders' exhibitions should complement each other handsomely.
The official Sasol headline exhibition this year has been conceptualised and curated by Van den Berg. Called 'Once Were Painters', it features five artists selected for their simultaneously fugitive but dedicated relationship to the process of painting. Penny Siopis, Marco Cianfanelli, Sandile Zulu, Joni Brenner and Anton Karstel have been commissioned to make major works that respond to the contemporary status, meaning and medium of painting.
Other group shows include 'Buzzard' by Bridget Baker, Marie Ange Bordas, Marlaine Tosoni and Mara Verna, which will take place in a "gallery" space as well as via a caravan that the artists will use to intervene in public spaces. Abrie Fourie and Santu Mofokeng collaborate on a photographic exhibition called 'Vyande/Enemies' that interrogates the boundaries that create familiarity versus potential threat.
It is also the year for solo exhibitions, with shows from Colbert Mashile (drawing and paintings on paper dealing with ritual circumcision); Jaco Siberhagen (an ordained minister who probes the unspoken terrain of child abuse and molestation through an installation of life-size paper cutouts and phenomenological elements); Jacques Coetzer, Johan Scott, Jan van der Merwe with a major new work, and Christian Nerf, who shows documentation and evidence from the growing series of 'Fashion Shoot' projects involving artists, clothing and outings to commercial shooting ranges. But where are the women?
Finally, art-in-public-spaces gets an added boost with Bell-Roberts' '8760 Hours' and the exhibition of a set of maquettes commissioned from Wim Botha, Peter Schütz, Claudette Schreuders, Brett Murray and Kevin Brand for a public sculpture Sasol plan to install outside their head office in Rosebank, Johannesburg. '8760 Hours' is guaranteed to get festival visitors' tongues wagging - Bell-Roberts have designed a 2m x 2m x 2m mobile gallery constructed entirely of glass that will travel the country in an attempt to reach places and people that wouldn't ordinarily be exposed to contemporary art. It launches in Oudtshoorn.
All of this will be documented, commented on and recorded in this year's catalogue, destined to become hot property if last year's Artthrob review is anything to go by. Responsible for production this year are Bell-Roberts, who as an enterprise are notable for never failing to extend their reach into all aspects of visual art production.
So if any readers are in two minds about whether to attend the Fees, this is what you can expect from the visual arts. Just over four hours away and with the drive through the Klein Karoo's wine and port country as pleasant as it is, Cape Town residents need a damn fine excuse not to make the trip. Nearby towns include Robertson, Calitzdorp, Nieu Bethesda and the spectacle of the Cango Caves. The drive takes approximately 12 hours from Johannesburg and once you're past Bloemfontein, it's plain sailing. But you should book your accommodation early. Additional information can be obtained from the festival office on (044) 272 7771. For accommodation, speak to Chrismari Terblanche.
But know this: once you've had your fill of visual and intellectual stimulation, you can satisfy virtually every gastronomic need in fine style at either Jemima's or De Fijne Keuken, two of the finest restaurants I've ever eaten in, serving generous portions of cuisine (they don't serve "food") at prices you could comfortably double or triple in city eateries. But again, book now as things tend to get crowded.
The festival runs from March 30 to April 6.