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AFROVBIES: Beyond the Clichés of South Africa

The biennial Afrovibes 2012 Festival returns for an extensive national tour of the UK, following its 2010’s inaugural debut.  More than just a show, Afrovibes offers an eclectic and thought-provoking programme of performance from South Africa, including theatre, dance, music and the spoken word.  Produced by UK Arts International,  Jan Ryan, its director believes it is time audiences begins to see beyond the clichés of South Africa, which has inspired and formed a huge part of the festival’s artistic narrative.

Belinda: You have said Afrovibes is about connecting UK artists to their counterparts in South Africa, why is this partnership necessary for both artistic landscapes and what benefits do both sides stand to gain?

Jan Ryan: I believe that artists everywhere benefit from cultural exchange and from sharing best practice (and other issues) with their counterparts overseas. Therefore the spirit of Afrovibes is about collaboration. We started this in 2010, when we first brought Afrovibes to the UK, when Benji Reid spent time in South Africa working with Volcano, a pantsula dance company. The production which Benji directed then came to both the UK and Netherlands. We followed this up earlier this year with The Three Furies – a spoken word piece created by Zena Edwards from London, Clara Opoku from Amsterdam and Mbali Vilakazi from Cape Town. The Three Furies was performed live in all three cities and has since been made into a film which will be shown as part of this year’s Afrovibes.

Afrovibes is also a festival that enables people to not only experience the work of a range of South African performers, but to contextualise that work through events that take place in the Township Cafe. Although we have been presenting theatre, dance and music from South Africa since 1995 – from solo performances at the Edinburgh Fringe to large scale music theatre productions at the Kennedy Centre in Washington –  Afrovibes invites discussion around both artistic and social issues affecting contemporary South Africa, in a way that a stand-alone piece can never do allowing audiences and participants to dig deeper into the life and mindset of this extraordinary country.

There is a strong focus on the ‘Township,’ why and what new narratives about South African Townships and the many townships of the world are you hoping Afrovibes 2012 Festival brings to the fore like we have not seen before?

The Township Café is always at the heart of Afrovibes – it aims to replicate the energy and excitement of a township shebeen. It is where artists and audiences can meet and it is where local artists get a chance to perform alongside their South African counterparts. But the work comes from a number of different environments – not just from the townships. However, the townships are still a significant part of South African life and are home for many of the artists. Some of the work reflects this, some come from a very different starting point. South Africa is a fast-changing and multi-faceted society and we hope that the work in this year’s festival reflects that.



Social issues always stir a strong discourse when it comes to the arts and culture, why is it/was it important to make this one of the core discourse subjects that Afrovibes translates to the stage in 2012, especially at a time when South Africa is at an interesting intersection socially, politically, culturally and in a social-economic way?

For many people, including myself, it is difficult to think of South Africa without remembering the days of darkness and struggle – and while not all the work does (or should) reflect this, Mother to Mother deals strongly with social issues, as does And the Girls in Their Sunday Dresses – the former from a historical perspective and the latter, from what seems to be a timeless issue of endless queues…even though Zaks Mda’s play is not new. However, South Africa is moving on and has needed to find a new voice beyond that of Struggle Theatre. We are exploring this in a symposium called Struggling to Survive which takes place at the Drum in Birmingham on 11 October.



There is a lot on offer during the festival, from The Sibikwa Arts African Indigenous Orchestra to My Exile Is In My Head to Thirst to Inception to Mother to Mother and, And the Girls in their Sunday Dresses, sounds like a theatre and dance treat of amazing talent lined up…what does each story mean to you as one of the people behind Afrovibes and in what ways have you been impacted by them?

The Sibikwa Orchestra come from Benoni, a suburb of Johannesburg, where many years ago, Phyllis Klotz and Smal Ndabe, a remarkable couple, set up an arts college for kids who were excluded from participating via the usual routes. The organisation has been in existence for many years and continues with little or no funding. The members of the orchestra have all been brought together through this organisation and are now able to earn a living as professional musicians. Mother to Mother is performed by a remarkable actress, Thembi Mtshali-Jones. Thembi was in the first South African production I brought to the UK in 1995 – so we go back a long way. Mother to Mother is a very human story and in the hands of Thembi – a very moving one.  And the Girls in Their Sunday Dresses comes out of the world-renowned Market Theatre and is directed by Princess Mhlongo – Standard Bank Young Artist of the Year for Drama. I saw the piece at South Africa’s National Arts Festival and just fell in love with it.  Qudus Onikeku’s My Exile is in my Head was at Dance Umbrella in Johannesburg, where it blew people away. Sonia Radebe dances with the wonderful Robyn Orlin. Thirst is a parable about the need for water in Africa. It is choreographed by Gregory Maqoma, who was previous artistic director of Afrovibes and written and directed by James Ngcobo, the festival’s current Artistic Director. So, each piece has a huge significance for me.



While you can never anticipate or imagine the reaction/response of the audience to a production, you at least hope something comes of it. What new way of thinking and narratives/new stories about townships and the social issues that affect them and South Africa, do you hope the festival evokes in the audience?

We describe the festival as “challenging…stimulating…thought-provoking” and that is just what I hope the audience takes away with them.

What new lessons about South Africa do you at least hope they learn given all that has been in the news media recently?

That, as with any country, there is no such thing as one strand of South African work. Like all good work it is multi-layered and can be appreciated on a number of different levels – and as with all artistic work, I hope that it inspires those who see it to find out more about the country and to see beyond the clichés.


Slide Show Images

Exile in My head – Isabela Figueiredo

Mother to Mother – Eric Miller


The Afrovibes Festival runs from Mon 1 Oct – Sun 7 Oct 20012

To find out more about Afrovibes Festival, go to: Afrovibes @ The Albany | Afrovibes @ Stratford Circus



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