Imagining new heritages for South Africa through the arts

Imagining new heritages for South Africa through the arts

The Next 48hOURS caught up with PROFESSOR SOMADODA FIKENI, Chairperson of the Artscape Board of Directors, on the eve of Heritage Day to find out how the arts intuition is engaging with South Africa’s multi-faceted heritage and what it might mean for the future of theatre in Cape Town.

With us just having celebrated Heritage Month, how challenging is it for Artscape to engage with a heritage as diverse as South Africa’s?
Since 1994, we have understated the importance of the arts in general; heritage – in terms of the function it can serve in nation building, in particular social cohesion. We are a country with a divided past and as we try to create a common destiny; a common identity, we can use arts institutions to transform our society and to foster multicultural consciousness, because the performing arts stages are the stages where different cultural communities are having a dialogue in a sense, and it is also the space where we expose people to diverse cultures that make us who we are as South Africa. So, the Artscape board took a decision that transformation would be the key platform towards fostering that multicultural consciousness and diversity in terms of the genres that we see on our stages.

As an arts institution, do you think you have a duty to foster critical thinking within the populace?
Without any doubt an arts institution is about innovation; about reflection and new ways of thinking that provokes the nation to have a conversation. So, artistic expression by its very nature is a thinking space, so we believe that stimulating that thinking is very important and thinking about positive ways on how to reflect on the journey we have as a country and reflect and begin to imagine the future itself through the performing arts.

What do you think the relationship is between celebrating our heritage and fostering that critical mindset?
There must always be a middle ground. When we say we are celebrating our heritage, many people often think of it as a frozen antiquity from the past, whereas heritage is that which society decides to preserve from the past, which is very important as a point of reference. But also it is that which informs the present, as well as the future. Remember, culture/heritage is something that over time society improves on; changes in order to respond to their environment. It’s not something static, or fossilized. We do have new realities. We do have a new society and that heritage has to inform us, but not constrain us from imagining the present; from imagining the future. Remember, our past history was about presenting certain dominant hegemonic perspectives.
Our current is about giving plurality of thought; plurality of imagination and cultures, especially those cultures that were marginalised in the past – to bring them into the mainstream.
That middle ground of which I spoke earlier should not be misunderstood, because people from dominant cultures often think that middle ground is assimilating into a dominant culture. Middle ground is about a conversation of cultures in a mutually respective manner and also a conversation about new experiences which may not be in the mainstream, but which ought to be taken into account as part of our kaleidoscope of cultures.

To watch the extended interview with Prof Fikeni, tune into 48HoursTV