If you enjoy culture and creativity, the annual Woordfees festival in Stellenbosch offers something for everyone, writes Judy Bryant
South African Country Life
Judy Bryant and supplied
I’ve got lots of great memories from last year’s visit to Woordfees, the premier Afrikaans event on the cultural calendar. One was my first taste of koeksister and malva tart ice cream. Seriously lekker. Another was the Bombshelter Beast concert in the Dylan Lewis sculpture garden.
One minute we were ambling through suburban Stellenbosch, the next we plunged into hectares of wild nature. Intense aromas of buchu and erica swirled up as we meandered through a vast, curvaceous landscape of lush fynbos. A huge terracotta torso lay atop a man-made island, and majestic sculpted beasts were silhouetted against the distant mountains.
Suddenly I heard ululating. A musician sitting cross-legged at the edge of a pond filled with water lilies vibrated his lips on his trombone and was answered by a saxophonist wearing a conical hat and a multi-coloured onesie. A woman’s bird calls echoed across the valley while her companion gyrated against a background of wild olive trees. An opera singer strode through the gathering and launched into an aria.
Any preconceptions you might have about cultural identity are challenged in 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,” said festival director Saartjie Botha. With the frenetic activity of the festival tapering off, we were chatting at the operations centre in van Ryneveld Street, where gilt mirrors, oil paintings and flowery drapes were 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% 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.”
The second-oldest town in the country provides the perfect backdrop to this cultural immersion. The oak-lined streets are packed with gloriously imposing national monuments, where creaking wooden staircases lead to vast halls lit by chandeliers. These old buildings, restaurants, pubs, gardens and tents evolve into improvised art theatres, galleries and concert venues. They host everything from jazz and stand-up comedy to book launches and wine-tastings.
For me, visual art was a highlight – curator Alex Hamilton gathered 80 established and relatively unknown artists working in media ranging from clay to upcycled metal. I was drawn to the rather melancholy yet beautiful work of festival artist Emma Willemse’s Archiving Loss and Longing, which shared the pain of losing one’s home.
It took Emma five years to create her installation, which included 101 handmade artists’ books ‒ filled with drawings, prints and collages ‒ with the book covers made from wooden parquet floor blocks.
Wilna Strydom from Pretoria showed lustrous gold ceramic vessels, while printmaker Thina Dube created paper embedded with plant material and string, which he used as a base for his drawing and painting.
As I strolled past musicians strumming on street corners, I marvelled at how every spare nook and cranny was used. Covered verandas were transformed into second-hand bookstalls, while pop-up food, gin and wine stalls mushroomed in parking lots. When you tired of one show there was 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 assured me as he whizzed me off to yet another location pulsating with colour and music.
Whatever your passion, you were sure to meet like-minded enthusiasts. One was Isabel Groesbeek, formerly a Human Sciences Research Council researcher who now freelances in genealogy. She was based in the gorgeous baroque Theological Seminary building, packed with exhibits on family histories. “It’s part of the culture to trace your history and tell your family stories,” said Isabel.
I also peeked into a hall where loads of foodies were seated at trestle tables, sampling rich red shiraz and game in the company of celebrated chef Bertus Basson. Professor Louw Hoffman, a meat scientist at Stellenbosch University, told me: “Game meat is local, and local is lekker – it’s part of your heritage. People want to go back to their roots and biltong, game meat and wine are so much part of this.”
You could 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 to take a breather and put your feet up, all the prize-winning movies from the Silwerskermfees were 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,” said 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 was particularly taken with Philippa Louw‘s dresses at Greensleeves Vintage Clothing, while Petri van Niekerk, assistant at Local Works craft outlet, showed me beautiful handcrafted beadwork, jewellery and embroidery.
The festival also goes beyond restaurants and recreation to drive transformation, education and integration with under-resourced communities. Saartjie told 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,” said Saartjie.
For me, the festival was an eye-opener, the chance to immerse oneself 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.
First published in South African Country Life, February 2019
Images Judy Bryant and supplied