I recently returned from a weekend at the National Arts Festival in Makhanda (formerly Grahamstown), where I was invited to participate in the Standard Bank Art “Be Part of the Arts” social media campaign. The National Arts Festival (NAF) has been running since 1974 — it was born the same year (and the same month!) as me — and it’s a rite of passage for South Africans who love theatre, music, dance, and art of any kind. People have been raving for years about how fabulous NAF is; I have no idea why I’d never gone before.
The tagline for this year’s festival is “It Will Change You”, which seemed rather presumptuous to me at first. I’ve been walking this planet for 49 years and I don’t change easily in a single weekend (I thought).
But as I sat down and started writing this post, I realized the tagline is 100% correct. The National Arts Festival did change me, profoundly. I came away bursting with new thoughts, ideas, inspirations, and realizations about South Africa and humanity more generally. I’m so, so happy I finally went.
NAF started on June 22nd and it’s running until July 2nd. Hopefully some of you are planning to attend the festival this weekend — if so, I’ve got highlights and tips for you. And if you’re not going this year, it’s time to start planning for next year’s 50th-anniversary NAF. I definitely plan to go again.
My Highlights From the National Arts Festival
We were only in Makhanda for 48 hours and didn’t come close to experiencing all the wonders NAF has to offer. But these were the highlights for me:
Highlight #1: The Monument
“The Monument”, which is formally called the 1820 Settlers National Monument, evokes a complicated set of emotions. The Monument was built the same year NAF started, in 1974. It was severely damaged by fire in 1994, the year of South African independence, and was rebuilt and re-opened by Nelson Mandela in 1996. It’s a huge, brutalist building, looming over Makhanda in a way that feels imposing from a distance.
But the Monument is the center around which the entire National Arts Festival revolves. Inside the building is a massive atrium that pulses with creative energy and inclusiveness that can’t be seen or felt from the outside. In a distinctly South African fashion, it works.
The Monument is beautiful at both sunrise and sunset. At this time of year I recommend walking up (there’s a lovely stone path that starts near the bottom of the hill) at 7:00 a.m., to watch the sun come up at about 7:20.
Highlight #2: The Sundowner Concert
The Sundowner Concert, which takes place in the Monument atrium every evening of the festival at 5:00 p.m., is a showcase of various performances happening in the NAF Fringe programme. The Sundowner Concert is such a fun show, it’s free, and it’s a great way to get a feel for upcoming Fringe shows that you might want to book.
Highlight #3: Performances/exhibitions highlighting indigenous culture
We saw many amazing performances and exhibitions at NAF. But the shows that we enjoyed the most, and have kept us reflecting for days afterward, were focused on indigenous art and culture.
Thorsten and I agreed that the highlight of the weekend was Aalaapi, a performance by two indigenous women from the Arctic, Niap Saunders and Hannah Tooktoo, living their daily lives inside a house on the stage. I could write an entire blog post about Aalaapi and can’t begin to explain it in a single paragraph. But most people in the audience were crying by the end.
My second highlight was Lady Skollie‘s visual arts show, Groot Gat, inspired by ancient Bushman paintings and the work of a contemporary Bushman artist named Dada. Groot Gat is displayed in a round, cave-like gallery on the bottom floor of the Monument.
We also loved the Eastern Cape Ensemble, an epic music and dance performance inspired by Madosini, featuring indigenous art from South Africa’s Eastern Cape. I was blown away by the range of musical instruments in this show, including incredible string instruments that are played by mouth. Sadly I don’t have any images from the Eastern Cape Ensemble but there are some clips in my Instagram reel at the bottom of this post.
We saw so many other cool shows that I don’t have space to write about. Quick shout-outs to the performances by Standard Bank Young Artists of the Year, Msaki and Thami Majela, and the beautiful mixed-media exhibition by Nyaniso Lindi.
Highlight #4: The Long Table restaurant
The Long Table is a special restaurant, set up every year specifically for NAF. The vaulted-ceiling room is lit almost entirely by candlelight and filled with long, communal tables. The food is hearty and delicious. (Do not miss the Asian pork belly. Like the rest of NAF, it’s life-changing.) Thorsten and I went to the Long Table both nights — we loved it.
Highlight #5: The window seat in our room at Cornerstone Manor
Thorsten and I stayed in a lovely Makhanda guesthouse called Cornerstone Manor, and our room had the most beautiful window seat I’ve ever seen.
Highlight #6: The Black Power Station
We stopped at the Black Power Station, in an industrial area just outside of town, right as we were leaving Makhanda. And wow, did we save the best for last. I was enchanted.
The Black Power Station is inside a decommissioned power plant. A group of artists, led by Xolile ‘X’ Madinda, have transformed the plant into a magical arts venue.
Again, the Black Power Station deserves a blog post of its own. I need to go back.
Quick Tips for the National Arts Festival
1) Book accommodation early and book for at least three nights.
Two nights was not enough time to do everything we wanted to do at NAF. I yearned for one more night so we could have two full days at the festival.
2) Dress in layers.
Everyone warned me of how cold it would be in Makhanda. When we got there, I thought they’d been exaggerating as it didn’t feel much different from Joburg. But layers are necessary, especially inside the performance venues, which are mostly unheated and often feel colder than outside. Also, it got colder and damper on our last day and I was glad for the heavy coat I brought.
3) Don’t book more than three shows per day and note their locations.
We booked four shows on Saturday and I felt a little stressed rushing between them, especially because a couple of them were across town from each other. When I go to NAF next time, I will book a maximum of three shows a day so I have more time to wander around and be spontaneous. FYI, tickets are very well priced (even free sometimes) and easy to book on the NAF website.
Thanks to Standard Bank Arts, both for inviting me on this life-changing trip and for being a longtime supporter and sponsor of the arts in South Africa. Please “Be Part of the Arts” and follow them on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter.
For a short video recap of my NAF weekend, check out my reel on Instagram:
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I wrote this post as part of a paid partnership with Standard Bank Arts. Opinions expressed are my own.