Free Form in the Free State with Dr Ricardo Peach

Posted by Carli Leimbach
Dr Ricardo Peach Dr Ricardo Peach 25 Nov 2013

Dr Ricardo Peach, Situate Festival Partner Consultant, talks to Carli Leimbach about his recent trip to South Africa and meeting with Vryfees.

How would you describe South Africa and your relationship to it? 

I am an Afrikaner. South Africa is my first home and it is where my ancestors have lived since the 16th century. I am also an Australian, with a long history of working in the arts in this country. This dual belonging has at times driven me slightly mad, but it has also offered me access to the cultural landscapes of two very different, but extraordinary countries.

As a previous colony, South Africa, like Australia, is in the process of exploring how it can support the cultural expressions of the diverse communities that now live there.  Unlike Australia, however, there are 11 official languages, Afrikaans, English, Ndebele, Northern Sotho, Sotho, Swazi, Tswana, Tsonga, Venda, Xhosa and Zulu. The most widely spoken at home are, Zulu, Xhosa and Afrikaans. These added differences somewhat complicate the way culture is supported and presented in South Africa, especially around language specific art festivals. However, it is also the stuff that makes for very interesting art.

Faces of former presidents of the African National Congress

Faces of former presidents of the African National Congress members Nelson Mandela, Oliver Tambo, Sefako Makgatho, Thabo Mbeki and current president Jacob Zuma on the cooling towers in Bloemfontein for the ANC centenary celebrations in Bloemfontein, 2013

What were your first impressions of Bloemfontein and the Vryfees festival site?

Bloemfontein (Mangaung in Sotho, meaning place of the cheetahs) itself is one of those cities that starts making sense only when you meet the people who live there and when you dig a little bit deeper for its history. It was the birthplace of the ANC, Tolstoy was born there and the British established the first ethnically targeted concentration camps in the world during the Boer War (1899-1902) in which more than 60,000 African and Afrikaner women and children died.  As the previous judicial centre it was also at the heart of the Apartheid regime, with Indians for instance not allowed to stay overnight in the then Orange Free State.

Bloemfontein, however, has markedly changed since then. I was privileged enough to encounter a whole cluster of amazing people in my last visit, which meant my spacial/social map of the city changed dramatically in the few weeks I stayed. A friend of mine who lived in Bloemfontein for many years summed it up when she said ‘You only cry twice when you encounter Bloem – the first time when you arrive and the second time when you leave’.

Of course Bloemfontein, like many South African cities, is still dramatically divided architecturally and socially between Black, Brown and White communities. Festivals such as Macufe and Vryfees, two of the main festivals of the Mangaung region, are slowly working on ways to integrate people through cross-cultural programming and events.

Vryfees, Bloemfontein.

Vryfees, Bloemfontein.

How did you first come to know about Vryfees and build a partnership with the festival?

The Australian link to the Vryfees started when artist Jimmy McGilchrist’s Curious Creaturestoured to South Africa in 2012. I have told this story many times because it is one of the most implausible tales of establishing bilateral relations I have ever heard.

It basically started in a queue outside a dinner function at the 5th World Summit on Arts and Culture in Melbourne in 2011, when I heard a very strong South African accent behind me, belonging to a delegate named Adri Herbert, who introduced herself to me as the Director of the Vryfees in Bloemfontein. I had never heard of the Vryfees, but as usual my iPhone was handy and I proceeded to show her some of the Australian artists’ work that I had just seen at Splendour in the Grass, including Jimmy McGilchrist’s interactive, augmented reality work

A week later she let me know that she was interested in taking Curious Creatures to South Africa, and the rest is history as they say.

Vryfees, Bloemfontein.

Vryfees, Bloemfontein.

What cultural significance and importance do festivals play in South Africa?

When Jimmy’s work was selected for presentation in Bloemfontein, I decided I would take some time off to visit South Africa and see the work in situ. One of the things that struck me about festivals such as the Vryfees and others like Aardklop, Grahamstown, KKNK and Macufe, is that they seem to be the main drivers of cultural development in South Africa. There is not the extensive support for arts organisations there is in Australia, and the multi-artform spaces provided by these festivals (which attract up to 200,000 people in a week), really is the base for cultural support of that nation.

These festivals are extraordinary events. They incorporate all artforms and cross-over from popular music through to opera, more traditional theatre, literary events, performances and visual arts. One stop cultural shops.

Nicola Hanekom, 'Land van Skedels' (Land of Skulls)

Nicola Hanekom, ‘Land van Skedels’ (Land of Skulls), Aardklop Arts Festival, 2013. Photographer: Ricardo Peach          

What is the vision or theme underpinning Vryfees?

Now in its 13th year of existence, the Vryfees is one of five very prominent South African multi-artform festivals held annually in the country. The festival takes place over six days during the second week of July and includes performing arts, visual arts, music and literature. The festival supports both big names in South African entertainment and unknown artists looking to build their careers.

In 2011, the festival management compiled a three year transformation strategy, which includes  exploring experimental, cross-cultural work as well as providing a platform for top quality artists of all South African cultures and encouraging international artists to participate in the festival.

It is because of this strategy that artists such a s Jimmy was invited to the Vryfees’ and which facilitated the festival to form its more recent partnership with the Situate Art in Festivals program. Through this program, the Vryfees, as the first international festival partner, allows Australian  early career artists to gain valuable international exposure and develop global profiles.

I am very keen to have Australian artists partner with South African artists, so that  new, collaborative learnings and co-creations can occur.

Bronze statue of Labotsibeni Gwamile Mdluli

Bronze statue of Labotsibeni Gwamile Mdluli, Queen Regent of Swaziland, 1899-1921, Oliewenhuis, Bloemfontein

You are developing a Program for Innovation in Artform Development for Vryfees, in which Situate Art in Festivals plays a part. Can you tell us more about this strategy?

As part of its transformation strategy, I was invited by the Vryfees to develop a new Program for Innovation in Artform Development (PIAD), based in Bloemfontein. In September/October this year I went back to South Africa and met with a range of people locally and nationally to see what interest there might be for interdisciplinary and experimental art. I must say I was incredibly surprised by the enthusiasm shown towards such possibilities.

If the program is approved, there will be some amazing opportunities for Australian artists to work with South African artists over the next few years. The program recognises Australia as one of the leaders in experimental and interdisciplinary art in the world, especially across art/science and hybrid performance programs.

With collaborative laboratory and residential opportunities as possibilities in the future, Australian artists will no doubt share their knowledge and also learn from South African artists about the fantastic work they have been developing and how they are tackling transformation and community engagement in their new democracy.

What are the challenges and rewards of making artwork in this context for Australia Early Career Artists?

I think one of the benefits early career artists (in-fact any artist) will gain working in South Africa as I mentioned previously, is a real engagement with community and the processes of cultural negotiation.  These challenges also exist in Australia, but in South Africa, because of the legacy of Apartheid and the numerous language and racial groups struggling for cultural space, artists from all backgrounds need to be particularly sensitive to cultural difference.

Australian artists working with South African artists will allow for the creation of some very new, exciting and globally relevant work. There are some great projects in the pipeline for the Vryfees with some significant opportunities for innovative cultural collaboration and co-developments between the two countries in the next few years.

Keep your eyes peeled for further announcements!

Christiaan de Wet statue, Bloemfontein. Artist: Coert Steynberg

Christiaan de Wet statue, Bloemfontein. Sculptor: Coert Steynberg