Words, music, art, theatre, food and wine fill Stellenbosch as the annual Woordfees rolls in to town. Judy Bryant recounts her visit to last year’s festival.
I have lots of great memories from last year’s visit to Woordfees, one of the premier Afrikaans cultural events. One is my first taste of koeksister and malva ice cream. Seriously lekker. Another is the Bombshelter Beast concert in the Dylan Lewis Sculpture Garden.
One minute we are ambling through suburban Stellenbosch, the next we plunge into hectares of wild nature. Intense aromas of buchu and erica swirl up as we meander through a vast landscape of fynbos. A huge terracotta torso lies on a man-made island, and majestic sculpted beasts are silhouetted against the mountains.
Suddenly I hear ululating. A musician sitting cross-legged at the edge of a pond filled with water lilies vibrates his lips on his trombone, and is answered by a saxophonist wearing a conical hat and a multi-coloured onesie. A woman’s bird calls echo across the valley while her companion gyrates against a background of wild olive trees. An opera singer strides through the gathering and launches into an aria.
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Any preconceptions you might have about cultural identity are challenged at this annual immersion in written, visual and performing arts – a celebration of the word in all its expressions.
“Woordfees started as a poetry festival and grew organically,” says festival director Saartjie Botha. With the frenetic activity of the festival tapering off, we are chatting at the operations centre in Van Ryneveld Street, where gilt mirrors, oil paintings and flowery drapes are interspersed with overflowing cardboard boxes and whiteboards scribbled with to-do lists.
“We’re not a holiday festival, as the university and schools continue to function. There’s a certain seriousness in what we do – a third of the events revolve around books and discourse. About 70 per cent of Woordfees is Afrikaans, with a large English theatre component. International input is mainly Dutch and Flemish, with British and German too. We have all forms of artistic expression and want to be a festival of excellence – the best in artistic integrity.”
What’s there to see?
The oldest town in the country (the city of Cape Town is the oldest settlement) provides the perfect backdrop to this cultural immersion. The oak-lined streets are packed with national monuments, where creaking wooden staircases lead to vast halls lit by chandeliers. These old buildings, as well as restaurants, pubs, gardens and tents evolve into improvised art theatres, galleries and concert venues, and host everything from jazz and stand-up comedy to book launches and wine-tastings.
For me, visual art is a highlight, and Alex Hamilton, curator of visual arts, has gathered 80 established and relatively unknown artists, working in media from clay to upcycled metal. I am drawn to the rather melancholy but beautiful work of festival artist Emma Willemse’s Archiving Loss and Longing that shares the pain of losing one’s home. It took Emma five years to create her installation, which includes 101 handmade artists’ books filled with drawings, prints and collages, with covers made from parquet flooring.
Wilna Strydom from Pretoria shows lustrous gold, ceramic vessels, while printmaker Thina Dube creates paper embedded with plant material and string, which he uses as a base for his drawing and painting.
As I stroll past musicians strumming on street corners, I marvel at how every spare nook and cranny is used. Covered verandas are transformed into second-hand bookstalls, while pop-up food, gin and wine stalls mushroom in parking lots. When you tire of one show there is always a friendly, shuttle-bus driver ready to whisk you to another festival hub, and more people to chat to. “I’m a person person,” one enthusiastic driver assures me as he whizzes me off to yet another location pulsating with colour and music.
Whatever your passion, you are sure to meet like-minded enthusiasts. One is Isabel Groesbeek, formerly a Human Sciences Research Council researcher who now freelances in genealogy. She is based in the gorgeous baroque Theological Seminary building at Stellenbosch University, packed with exhibits on family histories. “It’s part of the culture to trace your history and tell your family stories,” says Isabel.
And what about the food?
I also peek into a hall where loads of foodies are seated at trestle tables, sampling rich, red Shiraz paired with game, in the company of celebrated chef Bertus Basson. Professor Louw Hoffman, a meat scientist at Stellenbosch University, tells me, “Game meat is local, and local is lekker – it’s part of our heritage. People want to go back to their roots, and biltong, game meat and wine are so much part of this.”
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You can also snuggle up to romance writer Kristel Loots over a high tea, or discuss the secrets of spices with Laysa Jabaar, author of Bo-Kaap Kitchen. And if you just wanted a breather and to put your feet up, all the prize-winning movies from the Silwerskermfees are on show, as well as short films and documentaries.
Of course, welcoming all these visitors helps support country businesses. “We’re kept busy sorting out accommodation for people staying in bed and breakfasts and hotels, as well as self-catering and backpackers,” says Shantal Wollow, who handles visitor liaison at Stellenbosch Wine Routes.
Many visitors support the well-stocked art and craft galleries, homegrown clothing brands and musicians selling CDs. I am particularly taken with Philippa Louw’s dresses at Green Sleeves Vintage Clothing, while Petri van Niekerk, assistant at Local Works craft outlet, shows me beautiful handcrafted beadwork, jewellery and embroidery.
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The festival also goes beyond restaurants and recreation to drive transformation, education and integration with under-resourced communities. Saartjie tells me that the Words Open Worlds (WOW) project spans language, literature and the arts, offering everything from debating and creative writing for learners, to workshops on radio scripts and producing school newspapers.
“Our spelling competition is the largest in the country and reaches out to all nine provinces. It’s almost impossible to imagine how well the kids learn language skills and gain confidence in front of people,” says Saartjie.
For me, the festival is an eye-opener, the chance to immerse myself in thought provoking art, pore over old books and just chill in beautiful surroundings. It attracts fascinating people, drawn from all corners of the country to showcase or share in our history and creativity, ready to explore new ways of seeing words and the world.
The festival takes place from 1-10 March with the theme ‘Youth’.
The programme includes the first, experimental Woordfees Fringe. Get the English and Afrikaans programmes online. A printed English programme is available at selected branches of Exclusive
Books and at the Woordfees office (Erfurt House 37 Ryneveld Street, Stellenbosch).
Words Judy Bryant
Photography Judy Bryant and Supplied