Review by Thobeka Bhengu
On the 21st of March 2019, Inkanyiso Media team in support of Sir Zanele Muholi attended the 3rd annual Free State Arts Symposium (FSAS) 2019, the queer edition, which looked at the essential ingredient. The symposium brought under one roof various artists, activists, photographers, theatre practitioners and researches who shared their work, ideas and the essential ingredient in their work.
Nosana Sondiyazi, the co-founder of the Free States Arts Symposium and the recently elected Free State Provincial LGBTI sector Chairperson welcomed the guests and was also the master of ceremony for the day-long symposium. She spoke briefly about how she realized that Free-State based art practitioners began to make information transparent around opportunities and share platforms that are accessible to them by inviting a variety of local practitioners.
She expressed that artists required information about how their work could be seen in these theatres, arts festivals and performance spaces; and it was about time the Free State Art Symposium had a queer edition that provided a platform for discussions and deliberations amongst queer artists.
Mam’ Thoko Nogabe who is an arts activist and Board Secretary of the National Arts Council welcomed the guests on behalf of the National Arts Council which has partnered with the FSAF. Nogabe spoke about how Free States artists are not applying and pleaded with the artists to respond to the funding calls and submit their applications for financial support.
Steve Letsike, the National Chairperson of the South African National Aids Council was the first speaker who acknowledged the importance of Human Rights Day and spoke about the Bill of Rights and how we can use the document to protect rights. She spoke frankly about how sectors like sports, arts and culture have been left behind in a democratic South Africa and how as artists, we ought to reclaim our space and get to where we belong.
Letsike acknowledged and reminded the guests of how important human rights are in the region and globally. How we should think about our own role, our own responsibility and the silence that lives around us and the different spaces we occupy and interact with. Letsike looked at the issue of inequality and how some artists do not have administrative skills that are required to fill out these twenty pages long application forms, hence they struggle with meeting the requirements and compliance required in the application processes. Letsike also shared an idea of providing administrative training for artists to make sure that the application process is easier for artists. Adv Mpho Nefuri was the keynote address who encompassed a number of relevant issues in her keynote. Nefuri addressed the relationship between Arts and the law and explored what it means to have a great idea, share it with people, somebody uses it, makes millions out of it and patent it. Mpho also spoke about openness, acceptance, a safe and supportive environment for LGBTI+ people. She further looked at the power of patriarchy and its root into our social system, where men hold primary power. She reminded us that history has proved that too much power in any form is harmful to the greater good of society.
The Director of Free State Arts Festival Dr Ricardo Peach shared a poem by Graeme Reed titled “You know” and focused on queer culture, queer rights and how they manage to work together. Dr Ricardo analyzed the origins of the word queer, where the concept of queer comes from and the meaning of queer and how “queer” has been used for queer politics and queer theories.
After Dr Ricardo’s presentation, a panel discussion on a Human Rights Concept in the Performing Arts commenced. The panel consisted of three performing artists, Jefferson J Dirks an award-winning Free State art practitioner, writer and director who will soon be showing his work at the Dance Umbrella Africa 2019. Wezile Mgibe an art practitioner who uses performance and visual art for social change and Asanda Mqiki from Port Elizabeth who entertained the guests with a song from her new album before the discussion began. The panelists spoke about healing, ideal spaces for healing, work that speaks on behalf of the minority and how theatre and arts can be used for social change.
The second session was on literature focusing on Queer Histories in South Africa-Identities and Disruptive Narratives of Being. The session moderated by Tambu Muzenda joined by three panelists, Landa Mabenge an author of Becoming Him-a trans memoir of triumph; Efemia Chela a writer whose short stories have been published in Short. Sharp. Stories. Brittle Paper and As You Like It and Corneli van den Berg who presented information about the Free State International Festival, as the coordinator of the festival since 2017. The session echoed a call for more literature and knowledge around gender and sexuality in Africa. Tambu also spoke to Efemia about her book and insight into her book in an African context, on gender, sexuality and identity. Landa Mabenge gave insight into his journey as a transgender man, from his background, family and the community he came from that believed in its old traditions and its ways. Mabenge spoke candidly about his struggle with emotional, psychological and physical abuse and how he had to suppress who he was because he had to deal with these imminent issues.
The third session focused on living archives and photography. A session moderated by Nosana Sondiyazi with a panel of three photographers namely, Robert Hamblin, Lihlumelo Toyana and Sir Zanele Muholi. Lihlumelo was first to present her work, she is a documentary photographer and visual activist who believes that photography is an important tool towards social change and social justice. The photographers prepared presentations of their work with Robert reciting a heart-rending conversation with Leigh Davids, who recently passed away. Robert is an artist and gender activist whose work focuses on issues of masculinity, transgender activism and complexities around sex work in South Africa.
Sir Muholi an internationally renowned visual activist and photographer presented various works from their five publications. The images presented depicted several themes such as intimacy, interracial relationships, politics of representation, a series of black and white portraits that commemorate and celebrate black lesbians; images of feminine gay men, transgender men, transgender women and self-portraits that confront the politics of race, racial profiling, historical racism and blackness.
Nosana posed the fundamental question that summarized the symposium of what were the essential ingredients for each photographer in their work. Their essential ingredients varied with Lihlumelo’s essential ingredients being the honor that she gets from different people and how those people allow her into their spaces, their homes and allow her to capture their souls. Robert spoke about how the challenge for him has been that he has become the enemy as a male and as a white male. His essential ingredients have been to learn, to listen, try to dilute whiteness and dilute cis heteronormativity. Muholi’s essential ingredients have been the beauty of the people or participants they get to interact with, relationships created which are more valuable than the images themselves and their colleagues (the team Muholi works with). This session finally ended with a question and answer session. Where the audience asked questions around collaborations in reference to copyrights (who owns the work?), the inspiration behind certain works, the target market, representation and what makes everything worthwhile. The photographers humbly responded to the questions and the session came to an end.
The last session of the symposium was a session on A Social Justice Agenda on Queer Spaces facilitated by Tambu Muzenda and joined by Andiswa Dlamini, Reabetswe Mokone and Advocate Mpho Nefuri. Andiswa is the founder of the Other Village which runs a social safe space called Same Sex Saturdays. Andiswa’s vision was to create a space for queer people where its safe and people can socialize and network. Reabetswe is the Project Manager of Arts and Health, a Creative Producer of The Public Art Project, who is also a poet, actress, singer and social activist. Reabetwe is passionate about using arts as a medium to produce real mental change. The panel looked at several issues dealing with legal disputes, using arts to engage, creating safe social spaces and ensuring that these spaces can be internal queer safe spaces. They also discussed complexities of the term “safe space”, personal safe spaces, personal responsibility, how we individually need to recognize our privileges and how we need to come into spaces recognizing these privileges.
The 3rd annual Free State Arts Symposium closed off with recommendations and suggestions for the next FSAS from the guests. These recommendations and suggestions which were noted and might help in the advancement of the Free State Arts Symposium.