The virtual Poetry Africa International Festival opened at UKZN with a provocative piece by performance poet and playwright Koleka Putuma.

Poetry Africa is the first festival to debut Putuma’s latest project: Collective Amnesia [The Audio Experience] to an audience. The work speaks to and about the silences endured through womanhood, blackness, religionism, colonialism, traditionalism and lesbianism.

The festival is hosted by the Centre for Creative Arts (CCA) in the College of Humanities under the theme: Poetry as the Voice of Social Change. 

Deputy Vice-Chancellor and Head of the College of Humanities Professor Nhlanhla Mkhize said he was grateful to the festival partners for their support. ‘Poetry plays an important role in ensuring that justice is upheld since the works speak the truth and offer critical criticism hence this theme is befitting. We should learn from the poets’ deep well of knowledge.’

CCA Director Dr Ismail Mahomed said: ‘This year’s Poetry Africa festival features a series of collaborations with various partners. Most notable among these collaborations is a partnership with the French Institute of South Africa (IFAS) supported by Total SA.’

Festival Curato, Ms Siphindile Hlongwa added: ‘Through carefully selected poets for this year’s festival, we aim to provide society with a mirror to reflect and provide solutions for all societal ills. Most arts centres are still closed because of the COVID-19 pandemic and many artists continue to be without an income. The Poetry Africa festival in its online format has enabled the CCA to create some work opportunities to support artists.’

Renowned performance poet Lebo Mashile delivered the inaugural keynote address at the opening and spoke to the festival’s theme intertwining gender-based violence and the current pandemic. She lambasted the South African criminal justice system, saying it was failing women. She also berated corporates and NGOs who exploited the cover of the COVID-19 crisis to undercut artists, calling out the government for its feeble and failed plan of action for the arts as the economic fallout caused by lockdown hits hard. 

‘Poetry has deep historical reach, especially in a country like ours,’ said Mashile. ‘Poetry enshrines memory and culture. It’s always been a tool for resistance and revolution. It is even more important to hold and nurture poets in 2020, because only poets can make sense of 2020. We are storytellers and communicators so we know how to get messages in front of people. We can be a movement that rebuilds society especially after COVID-19. There will be a new world to survive when the virus passes.’

Her parting words were: ‘We are in the business of meaning. Your dreams are your work. Your dreams are the blueprint of the new world being born.’

Following Mashile was a performance by the indie R&B artists Acoustiq Assassins.

The festival is made possible by support from the United States Embassy in South Africa, the French Institute of South Africa, the KwaZulu-Natal Department of Arts at Culture, Windybrow Theatre and Institut Ramon Llull.

Words: Melissa Mungroo

Image: Supplied