Delivered 3 March 2018 to AFDA (https://www.afda.co.za/) graduates at the Baxter Theatre, Cape Town.
Graduates, Parents, Guardians. Dean, Faculty and Staff
I am honoured and delighted to be here on this special occasion of the AFDA graduation. Thank you, Gina Bonmarriage, Dean of AFDA, for the invitation.
Firstly, Congratulations to each and every one of the graduates! Let us truly celebrate that you have now formally earned your qualification! 216 gems are sitting here in the audience. Look at the shining eyes!
As many of you know, art in all its forms is one of the most transformative forces in society. Movies, music videos, even adverts shape our lives and our world in a compelling way. You now have the knowledge and tools to go out as storytellers and scriptwriters, as filmmakers and producers, as camera people and actors, as video artists and makers of documentaries and commercials. You are ready to offer your gifts to our world.
Today I stand before you, as an elder, an author, a fellow artist and hopefully a fellow change maker. I stand humbly as I know very little about film and could never act without laughing nervously. I stuttered during my peak adolescent years and developed arthritis in my early 30s while studying dance therapy. I am sharing a simple message. That as human beings, as artists, all we can all offer is the gift of our own story – a story which reveals itself over a lifetime of discoveries – step by step; scene by scene; through ups and downs, through struggles and triumphs.
I am a great fan of Ben Okri, the Nigerian author and winner of the Booker Prize. His novel, Starbook, (a personal favourite) shares a beautiful love story, set in a time when imagination ruled the world. A prince meets a maiden from another tribe- a secret tribe of artists who can see the truth behind things.
Okri writes: All people in the tribe were artists in one way or another but did not know it. To be alive was to be a creator, or a co-creator. At least, you helped create a destiny. Because with everyone being an artist, humanity was considered to be the greatest work of art we were created.
Let’s imagine tonight, that we are all part of this tribe, committed to the greatest work of art – building our humanity.
I love Okri’s vision, I love his message, I love his words. Here is what is says about youth.
Sophistication, vigour, brilliance, cleverness, richness, metaphor, subtlety, wisdom, power, profundity, variety, simplicity, politics, beauty were all signs that of youth and the greatness of youth were alive and well in this tribe.
And I have no doubt that each of you here has a good number of these qualities. Name them, claim them. We need each of you. Desperately! We honour you and salute your success!
We stand at a crossroads in our country and our world and we need every spark of creativity that each of you bring to light up the way forward. Tonight, we celebrate your youthful vigour, your dreams, your vision and your unique qualities.
We also acknowledge the encouragement and support of your families and lecturers.
I imagine that all the parents sitting here, had some pivotal role in enabling the success of the graduates here tonight –– some of you cooked while others worked hard to pay the fees. And lecturers spent many nights marking papers and watching your creative productions, listening to your ideas, encouraging your artistry.
I believe in the possibility of art to change the thinking and experience of those who engage – whether it is one person reading a book; or thousands of people in a stadium connecting with each other through the music of John Lennon; or an entire society whose consciousness can be transformed by a movie- like Black Panther.
What fresh lenses will you give us to see our art differently? What innovations are you creating from the uniqueness of your own imagination? And what does it mean to be a member of a sacred tribe of artists?
What inspires me is that in spite of the thousands of years which give ample evidence to the idea that we are capable of the worst, spine-chilling inhumanity, I still believe in our goodness as a people. I still believe that we are slowly waking up and that our collective ability to co-evolve is becoming more possible.
Here are a few glimpses into the defining moments in my own journey as an artist which I hope will be instructive for you. At the age of 16, John Steinbeck inspired me to want to make a difference. Through his character Tom Joad in the Grapes of Wrath, I first had the sense that, I was part of something bigger. Set during the Great Depression of the 1930s, Tom Joad left the dustbowl of Oklahoma and moved to California where he encountered shocking exploitation in his new-found work, picking peaches. A study guide described the idea of an oversoul and that Tom Joad saw himself as part of this oversoul. I was moved by Tom’s commitment to his union and his desire to serve all of humanity. The story and the study guide, planted a vivid image in my mind and heart – a youth idea that has never faded. That all of us are part of an oversoul. Part of a very large pancake floating in the sky.
At 28 – after several wrong turns in my journey, I was profoundly transformed by a song. This was a song of courage and faith composed by fighters in the forests of Poland. Hearing this song was lifechanging. It ignited a burning desire to know myself through music and to help others remember who they are through music.
I followed this strong creative impulse and completed a graduate degree in creative arts therapies in the USA. My thesis research was about how music and dance heal in traditional African culture. And believe it or not, this research landed me a fabulous job at Wits business school with an opportunity to co-author a book. African music and dance was a ticket to a job in a business school!
I had no idea that my journey would weave together several themes. But it did. My own search has called forth a passion for curiosity that I just could not ignore. I danced with key questions. How can we know ourselves through music? How does music humanise us? And why is it that Ubuntu is such a vital force in traditional African culture? What is it about music which helps us hear the deeper layers of our souls?
Three books and 40 articles later – everything came together in a deeply rewarding way. And today, for almost a decade, I am making a living doing my dream and even discovered a name for my art. Finding Us in Music. I weave together conscious listening, Ubuntu; hearing self and hearing other through music. This offering – a recipe to add flavour to that pancake I imagined in the sky.
I am currently based at Stellenbosch University, where I work with student leaders. In my groups, I listen to people sharing their stories and the gifts of their lives through music. An SRC member understands his call for leadership and activism in the music of Hugh Masekela’s Stimela; (Cyril Ramaphosa recently inspired many of us with Bra Hugh’s Thuma Mina – Send me;). Too many students in their twenties mourn their parents – one recalled the last time she danced with her mother in the kitchen to Louis Armstrong’s La Vie en Rose… Days of wine and Roses. She was 11 years old when she lost her mom. Every group I do, I witness people revealing what is important to them through storytelling and amplified by music. Sometimes they transform each other, sometimes they simply move each other.
My work does not feel like work. It is effortless, it is meaningful, it is energising. Whenever, I offer my art, I witness the magnificence of who we are as a humanity; I see that in the process, bridges are built between people. That is what art does – it builds invisible bridges between people.
I am living my dream as an artist. My prayer is that each of you will live your dream, to create the South Africa of our dreams!
In conclusion, here are 5 points I want to leave with you.
1. REMEMBER THE GIFT OF YOUR OWN STORY. YOUR OWN STORY IS THE TREASURE YOU HAVE TO OFFER US. IT IS RIGHT INSIDE YOU! WHATEVER YOUR AGE.
2. Life is an unpredictable– all you can do is to listen carefully for what inspires you, and to discern what your purpose is.
3. Trust your creativity – it may look a little chaotic but, in the end, you will recognise the story you are weaving, and the unique creativity that is yours to give.
4. Patience, Persistence and Pacing. The 21st century is exciting and unpredictable. You will need patience. You will need persistence and above all else – run your own race, at your own pace. Many years, I moved at a snail’s pace. But I made it!
5. For the parents in the audience. You are artists as well, and that with so many radical improvements in medicine, you all have many years either to renew or uncover your own artistic gift. This creative industry is tough and competitive -your sons and daughters graduating here tonight may need your love and support for a while longer. Be there!
Success happens. And AFDA can tell many success stories. I recently spoke to an inspiring young woman, Marcelle du Toit – AFDA Valedictorian 5 years ago, and a Mandela Rhodes Scholar. Just this week she returned from the Berlinale – the Berlin Film Festival. Just 29 years old, she is a line producer, and just managed a million plus dollar budget for a Danish TV series that premiered in Berlin. Set in Denmark and South Africa, Liberty is the name of the series and will occupy the top slot in Danish television. She is an AFDA graduate.
I will end with a few more words from Ben Okri: “Follow the sunlight of your creativity. Art is joy in the river.”
Jump in! Enjoy the journey, enjoy each other and enjoy the genius of your own story.
Thank you in advance for all the colour you will be painting on the canvas of our world and for the meaning each of you will add to our lives.