Walter Chakela, the humble artist intellectual

By Edward Tsumele

Nana Walter Chakela is gone, and with his demise there goes a study in humility. Chakela’s  integrity as an artist intellectual had few equals among  the current crop of artist intellectuals in the country, with over 22 poems and plays behind his name. tributes are currently pouring in over the demise of this giant African artist intellectual over  the weekend.

 One only needed to engage with him with regards to the role of art in society, especially art that is meaningful in the context of the African continent to understand bhis sharp mind and vision when it comes to the role of art on the continent. It did not matter that it was not the kind of art many of our art graduates from especially liberal art universities have a propensity for. 

Chakela carried a beacon of hope for Pan African art in general and theatre in particular when it was not even fashionable to do so while at the helm of Windybrow Centre of the Arts  in the  very early 1990s, pre-democracy.

 Personally I had the privilege to sneak to the theatre from time to time, without a ticket and uninvited as a youth living in a building in Hillbrow overlooking Windybrow Theatre in 1993. The sort of programming that was happening there found resonance with many people living in what was then a vibrant cosmopolitan Hillbrow.

Not only did I sneak in without a ticket or an invitation card, If not pub hopping and dancing to kwaito music of the time, but I had the nerve to even invite friends to go and watch shows there, with neither an invitation nor a ticket.

Such  was the great programming that existed under Chakela’s tutelage as artistic director of Windybrow in 1993 that young rascals like me and friends would rather miss the then popular pub crawling in the underbelly of Hillbrow to go and watch theatre there. Chakela also opened many doors to artists that other theatres would not even look at the time, and many artists who are successful today can attest to that.

And so clearly Chakela was a pan Africanist at heart and the African continent’s dreams expressed themselves through his programming at Windybrow. Works from such writers such as Bessie Head and chinua Achebe, were so regular as part of  Windybrow’s theatre menu that working as an art journalist later,  fellow theatre critics and I used to joke that it was inconceivable to imagine Windybrow Theatre’s annual arts programme without Maru in it, and directed by Chakela himself.

The point is Chakela loved Africa and in return Africa loved him as he made connections with the rest of the continent’s artists and shakers and movers in the arts, long before even it was conceivable that there would one day be concepts such as  Fees Must Fall and decolonising the curriculum,  becoming popular concepts in public consciousness. Chakela  had long done it.

There was also something else about Chakela. The cultural icon and artist intellectual was a humble man. He was a man of ideas who never put himself above others. Even when faced with situations that would wrack the nerves of many of us, he had the capacity to distance himself from emotions.

For example in later years as the Chef executive officer  of Windybrow Theatre, the institution, like many others  that were defined as Cultural Institutions by the Department of Arts and Culture’s White paper of 1996, (whose revision was adopted by Parliament in February this year) the arts sector at the time, found itself  on a collision course with the much feared Public Finance Management Act (PFMA).

As an arts journalist working for a weekend paper on its arts desk, I wrote regularly about these  misdemeanours at these cultural institutions involving mainly  black artists that had been elevated to managerial leadership positions purely because of their arts pedigree and achievements, but lacking in managerial skills. The result was often painful.

As CEO of Windybrow, Chakela found himself in this PFMA predicament, and Windybrow Theatre’s books did not look good in the eyes of the (PFMA), and the media was on him ( I was one of the arts critics who wrote about the bad shape of Windybrow’s books at the time under Chakela).

But unlike some who rush to blame the messenger when they are found to be in a compromising leadership position, Chakela handled the situation maturely and behaved in grace in the face of the storm gathering around Windybrow’s finances.

Instead of running away from the media or shouting innocent from a distance, he whipped out his phone and called me for a meeting at Xai xai Restaurant in Melville. As I made my way there from my employers’ offices in Industria 81, Commando Road, I expected to meet an angry Chakela  looking for a confrontation over my reports about Windybrow.

Instead I found a mature theatre executive who opened up about the challenges of running an institution  being an artist and not being a manager. In fact he admitted that managerial skills are often not matched by artistic excellence when it comes to artistic directors becoming chief executive officers of institutions. In fact he had resigned to save Windybrow, he told me. Now not so many are that humble to admit their weaknesses in today’s ego driven art environment. Chakela was, and from that day my respect for this artist intellectual was cemented.

Rest in peace Son of Africa.

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