This weekend, during which the world celebrates Africa Day, we highlight productions that explore culture and connection, land and belonging

The Main programme of the 2019 National Arts Festival has an Afro-positive slant, with stories and voices from across the land combining with a rich variety of indigenous music and dance that delve into the search for new identities.

“I feel such joy that the programme features a diverse selection of African ideas and stories,” says Acting Executive Producer Nobesuthu Rayi. “It is clear that our artists are interrogating new narratives and taking their work to new places. Despite ongoing financial challenges for artists, it is an exciting time for the arts in South Africa. We are shaping the tools that are carving out new spaces and hearing our voices roar.”

Nowhere is this growing affirmation of African culture and identity louder than on the Music programme, which is filled with sounds from the continent and a blending, remixing and repurposing of Western, contemporary or classical music into this landscape.

From INGOMA KA TIYO SOGA, a collaborative exploration of the 160-year-old works of intellectual, composer and evangelist Tiyo Soga by visual artist Sikhumbuzo Makandula and singer/songwriter Mthwakazi to EASTERN CAPE DIVAS with Afro-acoustic, indie-folk singer Nombasa Maqoko and jazz/performing artist Titi Luzipho. The divas are joined by the Kwantu Choir, which includes singers from across the community of Makhanda.

Standard Bank Young Artist for Jazz MANDLA MLANGENI AND THE AMANDLA FREEDOM ENSEMBLE will present Born to be Black: A Celebration of the Conscious Soul as part of the Standard Bank Jazz Festival. He says he intends it to be an “odyssey of musical meditation and healing; a journey into the less travelled where sonic realms are constantly in flux”.

The Eastern Cape INDIGENOUS MUSIC AND DANCE ENSEMBLE (Music) will present a vibrant combination of music and indigenous dances that can only be found in the Eastern Cape. The traditional instruments of the province, among the least known in the country, will be reintroduced.

Breathing new live into the traditional isiXhosa music of the region is Dumza Maswana with CELEBRATING AFRICAN SONG (Music). Expect innovative harmonies, engaging lyrics and nostalgic expression that crosses to the spiritual realm.

It is in that place that you’ll find the brand-new work of 2019 Standard Bank Young Artist for Dance Kitty Phetla, who has collaborated with 2015 Standard Bank Young Artist for Jazz Nduduzo Makhathini in GOING BACK TO THE TRUTH OF SPACE (Dance), a submersion into ritual and a struggle for restoration.

Conceived, choreographed and directed by Luyanda Sidiya, assisted by Phumlani Nyanga, AMAWETHU (Dance) challenges slave-era stereotypes of traditional African spirituality as demonic and asks that we reconnect with our true culture.

The heritage, culture, humanity and wealth of the African people is central to THE BOAT (Dance). A new collaborative piece led by choreographer and dancer Themba Mbuil and written by Billy Langa, the stories are inspired by the African migrants who have crossed — and are still crossing — the seas from Africa to Europe in search of ‘a better life’.

This journey is a preoccupation of Nigerian dancer, choreographer and activist Qudus Onikeku. In SPIRIT CHILD (Dance), which is inspired by Azaro, the child hero in Ben Okri’s prize-winning novel The Famished Road, Onikeku proposes an alternative reality to explore his own sense of place and belonging.

Thembela Madliki challenges audiences’ sense of connection to their culture and traditions in WHERE SHE WALKED (Theatre). Inspired by Zakes Mda’s Heart of Redness, it is set in a family home in the rural Eastern Cape and tells the story of an ailing, stubborn father and a young, educated daughter who are at odds over plans to sell the home home and the land it is on.

A similar story line is threaded through Standard Bank Young Artist for Theatre Amy Jephta‘s ALL WHO PASS (Theatre). Here, the effects of the forced removals of District Six illuminate how ghosts of the past haunt the present. She poignantly asks, what do you take and what do you leave behind when you’re uprooted from your land of birth?

Land and belonging, colonisation and decolonisation are sub-themes pulsing throughout the programme. The intercontinental production REDSOIL / BROWNSOIL (Dance) uses physical storytelling and visual theatre to draw on the artists’ different cultural, historic and geographical backgrounds to challenge ideas of space and to explore the complexities and politics of land and the earth. The piece investigates the devastating impact of colonisation on land, and explores the relationship between Africa and Europe.

The Film Programme has works from around the continent – Namibia, Senegal, Egypt, Sudan, Burkina Faso and elsewhere. “Meandering, wandering, wondering, these stories of different genres, tones and textures make up an intriguing incoherent story about a world in constant flux,” says Katarina Hedrén, who curated the programme. Look out for Namibian film-maker Perivi Katjavivi‘s THE HIDDEN, French-Senegalese director Alain GomisTEY and Theresa Traoré-Dahlberg‘s THE AMBASSADOR’s WIFE.

Main image: AMAWETHU