‘See the art and see the artist’: Free virtual festival celebrates all abilities

“See the art, and see the artist, because we are all here and able,” says Nadine Mckenzie, artistic director of the Unmute Dance Company.

As the driver behind Africa’s premier inclusive arts festival, Mckenzie sees the ArtsAbility Festival as an important challenger of preconceived notions surrounding ability and disability.

We spoke to her about inclusivity and accessibility as Unmute’s sixth festival got under way in its innovative online space.

Month-long virtual programme free of charge

The festival began on 3 November and will be staged over a month until 3 December.

Access, inclusion, ability and visibility have been prominent themes in previous Unmute ArtsAbility editions, but this year the festival has taken it up a notch by moving online and opening up to local and international creators.

The festival was established in 2014 to create a platform for artists of mixed abilities to collaborate and to accommodate various art forms. 

International Month of Persons Living with Disabilities

“Usually we have a five-day programme with live performances in theatres and site-specific spaces. This year we took up the challenge of having it for the entire International Month of Persons Living with Disabilities,” Mckenzie said. 

With a free, 30-day programme of performance, dance workshops, inclusive arts lectures and webinars, artists can explore and unpack the SHIFT (Spaces, Homes, Invasion Festival of Transmission) theme more. 

“We are taking works back to the communities who do not necessarily have access to come to a theatre space due to many reasons,” Mckenzie said.

“And, with the festival being completely virtual this year, it presented the opportunity for works to be executed anywhere from bedrooms to the office.” 

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The 2020 virtual festival features artists from South Africa and Africa, including from the Flatfoot Dance Company, above. Image: Supplied

Benefits to hosting festival online

This year the notion of the festival occupying a virtual space meant making any space a performance space and reaching out to a larger audience.

“We wanted to give everyone a fair opportunity to be part of the experience, especially people who aren’t able to afford both a ticket and having to still have data or WiFi to watch the works,” Mckenzie added.

Adapting to challenging times

Though the technical aspects were challenging at times for Mckenzie and her team, it did serve as a great learning curve.

“Since all performances are online, we had to not only rehearse online but film the end result too, and this was quite a challenge as none of us have experience in filming, and had to adapt and learn,” she said. 

She added they also had two residency programmes running over two months prior to the festival. 

“One was with a group of 10 artists from different provinces in SA and the second was with five artists from five other African countries. 

“Working with them, there were often challenges with having to get the entire group together, even with network and internet issues.”

However, for Mckenzie the most rewarding aspect was the creative success of these programmes with young artists from South Africa and Africa.

Must Watch: ‘Access Denied’ film

Also part of the 2020 festival was a “must-watch” documentary film called Access Denied, Mckenzie said.

Debuting on 26 November, the 15-minute film features Mckenzie alongside Unmute Dance Company’s resident choreographer Andile Vellem, as well as facilitator and performer Siphenathi Mayekiso.

As an artist living in South Africa, Mckenzie said she travelling independently quite a lot, and this had served as inspiration for the film.

“When travelling, I’ve always and still do get questions like ‘where is your helper’?.

“Which was something I wanted to unpack – not only my personal experience but also that of people with other disabilities.”

Through using site-specific spaces, a wheelchair dancer, deaf dancer and dancer living with albinism speak about the accessibility challenges they continue to face daily.

“My piece is done on a flight of stairs, whereby I go up and down with my wheelchair. Andile is in a taxi and trying to communicate using sign language and no-one seems to understand him,” Mckenzie said.

Mckenzie on social change for disability

When it comes to creating an accessible, inclusive and discrimination-free space for disabled persons, Mckenzie believes the first step is to understand what the term means.

“Not every disability is the same and yes, we live with disabilities, but it is not who we are.

“Also start making changes by putting words into action – there are all these discussions around how spaces can be accessible, but we fail to implement and act on it,” she said.

Find the full 2020 ArtsAbility Festival programme here.

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