Whats next with HIFA?

Society & Culture | By Baynham Goredema, Designer | 21 May 2013
PHOTO: © Baynham Goredema

Ironically the theme for this years Harare International Festival of the Arts (HIFA) was Whats Next? After the festival that is the very question that stuck in my mind. What is next with HIFA because they have certainly come to a cross roads. I have been going to HIFA since 2008 and I have been impressed by the festival, always finding an excuse to be present each year. Planned my meetings to coincide with the festival. But after all these years its becoming a bit monotonous. It will always be a very cool experience for first time goers but I think I speak for a few that after a few years it is beginning to lose its appeal and captivating factor. I dare say that the standards are falling slowly. I have highlighted a few issues that brought me to that conclusion. My observations are based mainly on my experience at the HIFA precinct that is around the Harare Gardens which hosts the music shows.

Application for a Stall
My bad experience with HIFA this year started with the application for a stall. A process which I started in 2012. My first application I was told to fill in the application form which i did and sent in January and they confirmed receipt of it. Then I followed up from then until March without any feedback until I got hold of one of the decision makers two weeks before the festival who assured me they would check up on the application. A week later I followed up again and they said I must resend the application. And they would get in touch with me the following day. They didn't and never did and I gave up. I had a good mind to write them a letter but after the festival and my experience there I realised it was just the signs of trouble ahead. The reason I had remained hopeful and had continued to follow up was because in 2011 I was only informed that we got a stall a few days before the festival! No official communication to say I got a stall and where it will be.

Artists access cards
My second suspicions were raised when I saw some of the artists access cards. It was a small laminated piece of card with a HIFA stamp at the back. This could have easily been duplicated. Normally there would use wristbands which would have been more secure. This led me to the question if maybe they had run out of wristbands. So the cards were a stop gap, or the shows were not originally in the plan and were added later after all the wrist bands had been printed.

Changes to the format
This year saw two major changes with the Poetry cafe and the Simba Youth Zone. The Poetry Cafe moved from the cosy Gazebo to a huge tent in the Global Quarter. Inside at the centre it had a stage/ramp. All the photographers had a set area where they were to operate from. It was nicely organised and also meant that more people could experience the spoken word. But it lost the intimacy of the Poetry cafe. But it worked really well for the Ramp to Rural fashion shows. The Simba Youth Zone was commercialised. I guess HIFA realised they can make a buck out of the children. So the kids would pay for a day pass granting them access to all activities at the Youth Zone. Maybe in the next year or two the Coca Cola Green will also be a paid section. For the First time I was able to attend the First Street shows which have been happening for a few years now. The stage which is positioned right next to the Police caravan attracts a lot of bystanders and pedestrians walking through the mall. It was the first time I have ever walked around First Street with a big camera with a big lens and not worry about being asked any questions, but I cannot say I felt confident about it! I was still slightly nervous.

The last workshop I attended was about two years ago, which was an animation workshop by the JAAG featuring Alex Lindsay from Pixel Corps, USA. So this year I made it a point to experience something new so went to a bead making workshop by the Gazebo. I was able to make a bead necklace which I proudly wore through out the festival and would tell anyone who would listen how I had made it myself!

Selective treatment by the bouncers
Last year I had a run in with the bouncers at the main stage who insisted that I couldn't take long videos with my camera, and he stood there to budge me at least twice in a song to tell me to stop recording. I then asked him about the lady next to me who was recording on an iPhone and I said why don't you tell her to stop recording. He insisted I wasn't allowed to do it. It didn't help that the lady was white and I was hoping he wasn't approaching her because of that. I put it down to ignorance and I didn't pursue it and complied. This year the bouncers seemed friendlier to the point that they even let some members of the audience jump onto the stage and dance during the Roki and Mampi show. Then after the Noisettes show we stayed behind together with a lot of people who were just relaxing after the show. The securities came over and they wanted to get people out of the venue, but they couldn't get themselves to tell them because the majority were white. Eventually a couple of bouncers made a beeline for the few black people who were there and they told them to get out. Then slowly they mustered enough courage to tell them to leave. We discussed this attitude of selective treatment by the bouncers towards black and white festival goers. Imagine if this had been a crowd of only black people, I can assure you there would have been unnecessary provocation and man handling by the guards. During another show I wanted to leave using one of the exit points. I was told that we could not use these during a show and we must use the designated exit. I had no problem with this and some of my concerns were put to ease when I saw the the same treatment happen to an elderly white man. But as I left for the designated exit, I saw a young white couple head straight for the exit we had just been denied. So I decided to stop and observe. They walked straight through without anyone asking them any questions, so I followed suit and sure enough I made it through without question from the very people who had denied me exit. I just didn't not have any energy to query them on their selective attitude but it gave me the impression that we are still far from where we would like to be where everyone in Zimbabwe is treated as an equal.

The new ZBC TV OB Van
Outside the venue there was a different type of security. Its a really good thing for the festival that ZBC TV were broadcasting live for viewers at home and I am sure this will increase the numbers for next year. But the OB van parked outside meant that it need to have two soldiers to control the people going past and that they didn't get too close to the van. They threatened to man handle festival goers in the queue, though they didn't carry this threat out to their credit but they certainly instilled some fear. As much as they were there for the OB Van, their very visible presence did not go down well with me.

More black South Africans travelling to Zimbabwe
A trend I find very interesting is the number of black South Africans who are coming to the festival. I personally met quite a few including Johannesburg poet and musician Natalia Molebatsi. They are mostly from the arts community but its a start and am sure they will come back next year and bring more friends. More and more black South Africans are coming to Zimbabwe to attend workmates weddings and for tourism purposes. This can be attributed to Zimbabweans working and living in South Africa who continue to speak positively about the country to such a point that it has intrigued South Africans to get out of their comfort zones and travel. Naturally the artists would be the ones to venture out first but as time goes by, more especially amongst the middle class will make the great trek North. One thing we found quite amusing was when we were driving along Samora machel and we stopped at the robot at Leopold Takawira. Then five elderly white folk crossed the road obviously going to the Dutch Reformed church for a HIFA performance. I have to admit it was quite weired seeing that many white people crossing the road in Harare CBD.
Twitter and social media
The network at the HIFA precinct was just a mission. This started last year and this year it was even worse. You could not make a call or get online. Econet was the main culprit. But one wonders if it was not Telecel who were jamming the signal since they were one of the official sponsors. Or maybe the OB van had something to do with this. This affected the number of people tweeting and raising awareness about the festival as it was happening in real time. There was a screen streaming tweets with the hashtag of HIFA2013, but to use the word stream would be be an overstatement, trickle was more accurate. I gave up trying to tweet. After the festival I found out that from the 16th of April to the 16th of May the number of tweets with the Hashtag HIFA2013 was only 1,896! There certainly doesn't seem to be a proactive plan towards marketing the festival on a plethora of social media platforms. HIFA should trend in the whole of Southern Africa during the festival. At each show and venue organisers should encourage festival goers to tweet about the shows they are attending. Upload pictures, videos and also supply an official hash tag which could be announced up to a month before the start of the festival.

Despite the various sold out shows, I am still under the impression that the numbers were not so great. There was a certain vibe and energy missing from this years festival or maybe it was just me. What did impress me was Micasa selling out the Telecel Mainstage, not an easy feat at all. Probably their cancelled show a few weeks early worked to their credit or was it a calculated marketing gimmick? I hope this is not the decline of a wonderful festival and this was just the experience and view of one festival goer. Until next year enjoy picture galleries of previous shows up to the latest!

I created this infographic on HIFA 2013 as an exploration of the De Stijl technique.

HIFA Picture Galleries
2008 - The Art of Determination
2009 - EnlightTENment
2010 - About Face
2011 - The Engagement Party
2012 - A Show Of Spirit
2013 - Whats Next