“There’s nothing more important than art. Art is the basis of our deepest humanity, and it is through art that we articulate our greatest concerns, our deepest beliefs and our most profound ideas about who we are.”
~ Star Wars Actors Guild 77
The past 19 months have brought considerable change that required us all to learn how to best navigate the unprecedented uncertainties and loss that came with the coronavirus pandemic. For most of us, that meant reflecting, re-imagining, reorganising and embracing technology as a means to connect and create. And so began Sibikwa’s journey of ‘digital migration’ – moving our arts education and training programmes, performances and events online.
The impact of COVID-19 exposed the severity of inequality in South Africa; it made a broken system even worse. Sibikwa saw its role in communities during these challenging times as more vital than ever. And through the turbulence of shifting economic landscapes, rising social tensions, and the plethora of challenges that arose in relation to education, live events and the economy; many exciting new things emerged. We witnessed family relationships strengthen through participation in learning activities delivered online, exciting innovations result from a real exploration into digital spaces, and broader audience engagement afforded by global connectivity and access to our work.
Not losing sight of the fact that most Sibikwa Arts Academy learners come from disadvantaged backgrounds where access to technology is limited and unaffordable, Sibikwa made use of resources and devices that learners, their families and neighbours had available, such as smart phones and WhatsApp, to ensure that learning and engagement in the arts was not disrupted by the pandemic. Bolstered by the success of the Sibikwa Arts Academy’s digital strategy, we ventured into online Drama and Arts Administration courses for youth in rural areas participating in the Rand Merchant Bank funded Qinis’Ulwazi National Capacity Building Project and the Department of Sport, Arts and Culture funded Community Arts Development Project. The projects culminated in performances recorded and posted as a collection on our YouTube channel.
At the time of the COVID-19 outbreak in March 2020, our Inclusive Creative Arts Programme (ICAP) learners, a multi-talented mixed ability group, had just started working on the Junction Avenue play Sophiatown. With a history of learning difficulties impeding their ability to read and write; they worked tirelessly on the script during the lockdown period, meeting periodically on WhatsApp, and by the end of October, filmed extracts of the play that were presented on the programme of The Urban Festival: Empowering the Civic at the end of October 2020.
Another performance presented at the Urban Festival and subsequently at the Free State Arts Festival was The Amavuso Project, a collaborative transnational partnership with the Pan African creative civil society organization Nhimbe Trust, based in Zimbabwe; funded by the Swiss Development Cooperation through Pro Helvetia’s ANT Mobility Funding. The Amavuso Project, exploring the roots and rise of the ‘blesser’ phenomenon in the Southern Africa; using theatre, videography and digital platforms to develop and present an intriguing contemporary multi-media performance, by an all-female creative team; was rehearsed online, filmed in Zimbabwe and South Africa and edited into one cohesive piece of piercing social commentary.
In need of a bit of laughter to counter the heaviness that was 2020, we decidedly started 2021 with a collaborative season titled Ub’Dope Comedy eSibikwa, in partnership with Standard Bank Young Artist of the Year, Jefferson ‘JBobs’ Tshabalala, of Ub’Dope Shishini. The partnership kicked off with virtual comedy skits and shows streamed on WatchaTV and included a series of online master classes, streamed live on Sibikwa’s Facebook page. In April and May, with the ease on lock down regulations, live performances took place at Sibikwa’s Theatre featuring Mpho Popps Modikoane, Tsitsi Chiumya and many more.
In March 2021, in response to the rising statistics around gender-based violence (GBV); with funding from the National Arts Council, the ICAP group created a digital educational resource, titled Banna ba Sebele. Depicting the realities of GBV in South Africa and artistically exploring gender dynamics within a patriarchal society highly influenced by tradition, culture and religion; this project focused on the role and responsibility of young men in breaking cycles of gender-based injustice. Filmed and packaged in an interesting, interpretive and episodic way, to achieve broad access suiting varying online and audio-visual resources available in community settings, this project has the potential to change the way that young people think, communicate and behave with regard to fostering healthier relational dynamics in society.
Promoting and celebrating the agency and power in womanhood, Sibikwa’s annual Seriti sa Basadi Women’s Month Event took on a virtual form in 2020, and in 2021, offered a hybrid programme of virtual dialogues and live performances, supported by the Gauteng Department of Sport, Arts, Culture and Recreation. The 2020 event, presented in partnership with the Department of Cooperative Governance and SA Cities Network, provided the opportunity for women from across the country to create and share videos to motivate, strengthen and empower voices often relegated to the margins. These videos and the responding panel discussion, remain available for viewing on the Sibikwa Arts Centre Facebook page. This partnership was extended with another online engagement, titledYi’Ma, which was presented at the Urban Festival as a collective contribution to the UN Habitat’s 40 Day Safer City Challenge. This project, which aimed to elicit actionable solutions to address issues of Safety in South African cities, as raised by girl children and teens.
Notwithstanding COVID-19 travel and gathering restrictions, Sibikwa was not constrained in its ideas and efforts to reach the thousands of people who benefit from its performances and training, which was no small feat in the face of the pandemic. Now facing the (hopeful) beginning of the end of the pandemic, we stand together in community, looking forward to a healthy, inspired and transformative future.