South African poet, playwright and producer, Siphokazi Jonas is honoured to be the featured act at the 2021 Poetry Africa Festival.
Under the theme “Unmute: Power to the Poet”, the 25th edition of the virtual festival is set to take place at the Centre for Creative Arts at the University of KwaZulu-Natal from Monday, October 11 and runs until Saturday, October 16.
“Being selected as the Poetry Africa Featured Poet this year has been a lesson in celebrating all the moments of impact because art allows us to contribute something to society and ourselves every day. I am truly grateful to the festival, this is an honour,” shares Jonas.
Jonas says she will be tackling mental health and how the sense of community has been affected, particularly during these uncertain times.
The renowned poet hopes her personal experiences will help the audiences overcome their challenges as well.
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The Eastern-Cape born star says it was during the height of lockdown that she almost gave up her career as an artist.
“The early days of lockdown were ones of high anxiety because of how quickly our livelihood was taken away.
“I have always been laser-focused about a career in the arts and have never wavered, even during the most challenging times.
“Last year was the first time I have ever considered quitting because it seemed we would not find a way out of the performer-audience model.
“But I thank God and the incredible community which I have around me because we began improvising and coming up with ways to take our work online.
“This is when we streamed a theatre recording of #wearedyinghere around the world, and along with Optical Films and the support of the Kolisi Foundation, the production was adapted into a short film.
“Being multi-disciplinary meant I was able to take more writing jobs and clients were requiring filmed performances instead of live ones.
“The increase in collaboration and filming has led to a different way of disseminating my work, but also wider audiences,” says Jonas.
When asked about the future of arts in South Africa, post-Covid-19, Jonas offers: “In the poem which I wrote for SONA 2021, ’What does not sink’, there is a line which says, ‘The artist contemplates whether to eat her own words, and art starves.’
“I believe that artists will always make art. However, the department which holds the almost sacred responsibility to ensure that arts and culture are protected is failing and has done so during one of the most devastating times in recent history. They have left us eating our own creations to survive.
“Further, the ‘starving artist’ trope will also continue to be a reality if artists are not paid their royalties and residuals for the ongoing use of their recorded works and their images.
“Artists are using both their work and their bodies as protest, my hope is that those who consume our work will support those efforts.
“I am inspired by the passion and tenacity of South African artists, while I am deeply discouraged by corrupt leadership, the latter reminds me of a legendary character, Laqhasha, from Sgudi Snaysi, cutting off our potential for progress at the knees,” she says.
Her work tackles issues around faith, identity, gender-based violence, cultural and linguistic alienation, black women in rural spaces, and the politics of everyday lives.
“My work is about sight: seeing and being seen. My characters are often in the margin in some way and I invite them to speak with nuance instead of the two-dimensional way in which they may often be presented.
“I aim to treat these stories with compassion always, the audience will be challenged to interrogate their own prejudice and be moved to empathy, not only for the characters but for themselves and for the people around them as well.
“It is also why my work interrogates privilege and the abuse of power so that we can investigate our position in relation to that abuse, and ask uncomfortable questions such as, are we complicit?”
Jonas counts poets and theatre-makers Ntozakhe Shange, Napo Masheane and Thembi Mtshali-Jones among her artistic inspirations.
“My main influence in the combination of poetry and theatre is Ntozakhe Shange, the creator of the choreopoem. There are other creators like Napo Masheane who are incredibly adept with the form, and it is a pleasure to consider them contemporaries.
“Two of my favourite storytellers are Mam Thoko Ntshinga and Mam Thembi Mtshali-Jones. Some musicians who influence my approach to art and performance include Lea Salonga, who has sung for Disney and Broadway, for example, has the most incredible diction, and Babalwa Zimbini Makwetu.
“Zimbini brings her entire spirit into performance and I always have a visceral response when I listen to her. As a multi-disciplinary artist, I draw from many different art forms to make chakalaka in my own creative bowl,” admits the star.
Legendary poet Dr Stella Nyanzi will be delivering the keynote speech during the opening of the festival on Monday, October 11, at 11am.
Nyanzi is a multiple award-winning medical anthropologists, specialising in sexual and reproductive health, sexual rights and human sexualities in Uganda and The Gambia.
“Both Stella Nyanzi and Siphokazi Jonas represent the brand of strong women voices who have been a feature of the Poetry Africa festival for a quarter of a century.
“They are fearless and unambiguous in letting their voices inspire hope. The poems give agency and impetus to the continued struggle for social justice,“ says Siphindile Hlongwa, curator of the Poetry Africa Festival.