KAROO KAARTE LEADS THE WAY IN THE ARTS WITH A PROJECT DESIGNED AND DESTINED TO ELEVATE AND PROMOTE REAL CHANGE IN COMMUNITIES

South Africans are starting to realise that we have to do it for ourselves. That’s how change will really make an impact. It’s something artists Neil Coppen and Vaughn Sadie put into practice with the establishment of Karoo Kaarte at (and with the help and support of) the Klein Karoo Nasionale Kunstefees and a handful of other funders . DIANE DE BEER spoke to the two art activists about this ongoing dream of theirs:

Co-Facilitator Vaughn Sadie leading a discussion with the core team (left) with co-facilitator Neil Coppen during rehearsals for Op Hierie Dag. Photography by Ryan Dammert.
Karoo Kaarte (Karoo Maps) was one of the most intriguing and important productions at this year’s Klein Karoo Nasionale Kunstefees (KKNK).

The project’s name Karoo Kaarte plays on the dual meaning of kaarte in the Oudshoorn context. The English translation of kaarte is maps and in the local vernacular “om kaarte te sny” refers to hanging out and telling both serious and light hearted stories.

Described in the festival guide as the heart of the festival, it was the result of months of research and work done in Oudtshoorn. It was the dream of the late Dr David Piedt, a founding member and Chairman of the KKNK and someone who worked tirelessly for the transformation and renewal of the KKNK over the years.

The project driven by the KKNK was established to make a transformative difference in the Karoo town where the festival is based.

Facilitated by the smart combo of the innovative theatre maker Neil Coppen and the visual artist Vaughn Sadie, the idea was to use the arts in many different ways to change the narrative of the Oudtshoorn community to a more inclusive one.

Karoo Kaarte team gathers for the research and creative process used to bring together a range of participants to reimagine the archive as an inclusive community resource. And images and details of the Karoo Kaarte team engaging, over a series of workshops, with Zietske Saaiman’s large-scale map of Oudtshoorn and its many suburbs which she painstakingly demarcated in masking tape on the floor of the CP Nel Museum Hall. Photography by Ryan Dammert and Karoo Kaarte.

Storytelling is one of the most powerful and compelling tools we have as people to bring about change, and it is exactly what was applied in this project in many different forms. The whole community of the town was encouraged to participate and engage in the research projects, which focussed on as many individuals as possible telling their individual stories, and more particularly, how they saw themselves featured in the town.

The whole exercise is about bringing people together. With our past in mind, many of our towns and cities still show the former fault lines and it is wishful thinking to hope that things will slide into normality by itself. This is some of what they were working with to incorporate and bring everyone together to tell their stories and become part of the fabric of this Karoo town.

Coppen explains how it all started: “I’ve worked with Hugo Theart (KKNK Artistic Director) multiple occasions as a producer and across many of our conversations, he always expressed the festival’s need and enthusiasm for developing projects that invested in the Oudtshoorn arts community and deepened the relationship between the festival, residents and local artists.”

 “The Karoo Kaarte Project was born from these conversations and is an expansion and deeper iteration of a variety of projects Vaughn Sadie and I have worked on over the last decade, both in collaboration and separately. As artists and facilitators we both are deeply passionate about, and committed to, initiating public participatory arts and theatre projects across South Africa, creating work that attempts to stimulate empathy, awareness, dialogue and deeper listening through performance and visual arts mediums.”

With the help of  the KKNK, their resources and energy, they were able to pull off a project and programme of this depth, complexity and reach. Both Coppen and Sadie moved to Oudtshoorn for six months, collaborating daily with what they  describe as an incredible team of young artists, writers, musicians, performers, arts leaders, activists and educators.

The good news is that this is an ongoing project. With the KKNK, their vision is to establish a solid and effective long-term engagement with the community of Oudtshoorn through the arts and expand the project annually to include and feature more and more local artists at the festival.

A big part of the success depended on the people involved. The process was one of broad consultation, which meant that Coppen and Sadie engaged with around 60 businesspeople, traditional knowledge holders, political leaders, supporters of the festival and artists to reflect on the possibilities of implementing a community-led festival programme for the KKNK in 2022. 

“Once the project began, we selected a core team of Oudtshoorn-based artists, poets, arts leaders, writers, musicians, researchers, facilitators and educators . These participants were guided over the four-month ‘first phase’ of the project through a series of weekly workshops to introduce the project methodologies and processes.

“Essential to the success of these processes was the involvement of leading intangible heritage consultant Deidre Prins-Solani, who facilitated a series of key workshops around developing the project ethos,  harnessing deep listening skills and the importance of preserving and archiving the intangible heritage of the region.” 

The core team participants were then trained in oral history skills and methodologies and, from October 2021, conducted 35 oral histories with a range of residents around the themes of music, land, identity, sexuality, disability, history and place. These unearthed a compelling set of stories and life histories which were and are being collated and used to bolster the existing archives housed in the CP Nel Museum, which means that the history of the town is being broadened to capture as much of the community as possible.

For change to truly manifest, everyone has to claim ownership.

From this body of research the team also generated content in the form of four Zines (small magazines distributed at the Festival), art exhibitions, a theatre production and a musical performance for a week-long community-led programme at the 2022 KKNK Festival, all of which we as festival goers could engage with.

On the art side, a participatory collage process saw the team working with hundreds of images handpicked from the CP Nel Historic archives and a selection from the KKNK’s past 25 years of theatre festival photography, as well as personal images brought to workshops by participants. These collage workshops were held with school learners, unemployed youth in outlying rural areas (in partnership with the Youth Cafe) and the broader public. 

This process was designed as a quick but thought-provoking introduction by capturing how participants from various walks of life imagined themselves, as well as their sense of place and context within the town and outlying areas.

 This then lead to the theatre production Op Hierie Dag and the public arts programme. Both the theatre and arts teams (each featuring around ten participants in their teams) sifted through vast bodies of research to create performances and exhibitions which fall outside of the more stereotypical ones that have come to define the region – and of course many others.

To find musicians, actors, writers and poets for the theatre production, a series of open auditions were hosted covering the town extensively. In the end, the panel saw over 100 people and completed call-backs and workshops to finalise the cast and musicians for the production.

Sadie explains that the visual arts, theatre and music are all invaluable modes of expression for communicating the research. “It’s important to have multiple entry points to make the project accessible to different audiences through different registers.”

“I was deeply inspired by the level of dedication, talent and commitment shown by the whole team and was challenged and changed by creating this work and dreaming alongside all of them. I believe the Karoo Kaarte process proves that collaboration at this scale can yield powerful and exciting creative results,” noted Coppen.

He argues that  much of art and theatre making in the Western world is about individual ego, hierarchies and ownership, while all the outputs of Karoo Kaarte were achieved through deep conversation, consultation and collaboration with dozens and dozens of incredible minds and talents. “It was a process whereby each one of us were encouraged to contribute our respective skill sets and abilities to the mix.”

 The theatre production of Op Hierie Dag, for example, featured many voices and contributions and a text inspired and co-authored by the citizens of Oudtshoorn. “One of the local participants, Tiffany Saterdacht and I worked incredibly hard to wield all these narratives into a coherent theatrical experiences, but the material itself literally stems from thousands of pages of research and interviews that were gathered by the Kaarte core team.”

“In the end there were so many people responsible for its success and reception and who could feel a sense of pride in what they collectively accomplished and saw up there on the stage.”

Some of the Karoo Kaarte team members including (L to R) Clarissa Saaiman, Glenisha Tarentaal, Tiffany Saterdaght, Cole Wessels, Zietske Saaiman, Lauren Theodore, Mirinda Ntantiso, Ané Koegelenberg,  and back Theo Witbooi, Janion (Noemwoord) Kennedy Vaughn Sadie and Neil Coppen.

What excites Coppen and Sadie is the talent they unearthed. Many of them were young artists and arts leaders who worked tirelessly at their craft and disciplines for several years and honed their abilities despite the challenges they have faced around lack of access, recognition and platforms.

 They both agreed that many of the participants across this project were some of the most talented and hardworking artists they had the privilege of working with.

If anything, this project set out to try dismantle this misconception that artists and performers from small towns (the fringes of more urban arts centres) are lesser or “amateur”… when all that’s really missing from the equation is the access to space, platforms, mentorship and resources.

 When you are able to offer these elements to these artists and storytellers, they are truly able to shine and receive the sort of recognition that is long overdue to them. So a project like Karoo Kaarte tries to foster and build these platforms and shift the national spotlight to shine on worlds, people and stories that have been excluded from national stages and conversations for way too long. It’s really about treating Klein Karoo based artists and storytellers with the respect, audiences and attention they deserve.

For those of us lucky enough to see some of what they had created, the most impressive was the participants and their enthusiasm.

Thato Mbambe during his solo in the Vallei Klanke concert at the 2022 KKNK festival. Mbambe was one of the successful younger candidates from the audition process to land roles in both the theatre concert and stage production.

If I had one bit of criticism it was about not understanding the breadth of the project. I missed out on the museum collages and I know many were unaware of the musical evening at the end of the festival, one of my highlights of the festival. The result was that even more excitement around the project could have been generated.

 Fortunately, as Coppen states, “the dream is for this process to continue and grow and expand well into the future and we are already dreaming up new processes as a collective for 2023”.

The acclaimed Lida Botha as part of the Op Hierie Dag cast.

That is heartening and I for one will be planning ahead to make sure I witness Karoo Kaarte’s evolvement from start to finish. And I’m crossing fingers that this is a process that will spread to cities and towns across the country.

The six Kanna Award nominations for the theatre production alongside the Kanna Herrie-prys for cutting-edge contribution to the festival saw the Karoo Kaarte team sharing stages and recognition with some of South Africa’s top theatre and arts luminaries, an achievement that further begins to blur the lines between so called “community” artists and those who operate in the “mainstream.”

Karoo Kaarte, a KKNK project, was supported by the ATKV, Nasionale Afrikaanse Teater-inisiatief (NATi), the Oudtshoorn Municipality, the Western Cape Department of Culture and Sport, Mzansi Golden Economy (MGE), the Netherland Embassy of South Africa, the University of Stellenbosch’s Department of Social Impact and Transformation, the C.P. Nel Museum, SON, Business Arts South Africa (BASA) and Absa. Research was supported under the To-Gather programme of the Swiss Arts Council, Pro Helvetia.

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