/ 21 October 2022

Stitching together femininity, history and community

Guernica Copy
Synergy: The Keiskamma Guernica (above), on display at Constitution Hill, was inspired by Spanish artist Pablo Picasso’s 1937 painting Guernica.

There’s a profound sense of mysticism that overcomes you upon entering the Eastern Cape. With the calm, rustic landscape that merges with the vast open skies, its richness of wildlife, and the numerous and unexpected pockets of historically and culturally significant communities and establishments, its charm is both alluring and haunting. 

Some of the province’s most famous writers have tried to capture this mysticism in multiple ways, including Zakes Mda, who flaunts the rich biocultural diversity and spiritual significance of a coastal Eastern Cape village in The Heart of Redness and Olive Schreiner, whose ethereal Karoo landscape in The Story of an African Farm carries an “unspeakably sweet wind”, which when it blows, creates a feeling of an “unutterable longing”. 

Both narratives, in different ways, ascribe pantheistic attributes to the Eastern Cape’s natural landscape which, with its affective essence, is not simply seen as a passive physical space but an active force that constructs the identities of those who live on it in as much as they alter and assign meaning to it.

Although many spaces in Johannesburg might fail to waft a “sweet wind” full of longing in your direction, or evoke a sense of mystery except at the corner of some dark alley, one of South Africa’s most prized cultural productions has brought a modicum of the Cape’s allure and charm to the Constitution Hill precinct. 

Produced by more than a hundred women from the small Eastern Cape village of Hamburg, who form part of the Keiskamma Art Project, a collection of tapestries is being exhibited at the Hill’s Women’s Jail and Number Four sections under the title Umaf’evuka, Nje Ngenyanga / Dying and Rising, as the Moon Does.

The tapestries, which depict Eastern Cape history from colonial settlement to the era of “post-apartheid” South Africa, are majestic, community-produced, hand-stitched art pieces made from embroidery thread, textiles, appliqué, beading, photography, felt, wire, paper-mâché, metal and wood. 

“There are 18 artworks. Three are on video but the rest are physical,” says curator Pippa Hetherington, whose familiarity with the Keiskamma Art Project dates back to its inception in 2000. 

“All the pieces individually could be spoken about at length in terms of technique and practice. Typically, people have only seen the works in isolation but, by seeing them all together in one place, you realise the scale and the impact.”

The scale and impact of the artworks is not accidental, considering the remarkable origin stories that have buttressed the growth of the community of women who’ve formed the 22-year-old project. 

It was conceived by Dr Carol Hofmeyer, a medical doctor and artist who, after settling in Hamburg, was affected by the poverty in the community. 

The poverty in the village was further aggravated by the policies instituted by former president Thabo Mbeki, which prevented access to antiretroviral drugs during the era of HIV/Aids denialism and which led to the deaths of close to 400 000 patients across the country. 

To make up for the government’s incompetence in dealing with poverty and the Aids epidemic, Hofmeyer began treating the sick and even acquired antiretrovirals. 

The art projects that she fostered became therapeutic for members of the Hamburg community as a way to express their stories of love and community, nature and spirituality and illness and death, and as a way to promote HIV/Aids awareness.

Keiskamma Art Project members plan a new tapestry. The hand-stitched works are made with embroidery thread, textiles and beads.

The Keiskamma Guernica (2010), which was constructed using appliqué, embroidery, felt, beaded ribbon, metals, blankets and old clothes, is just one of several pieces employing the theme of HIV/Aids. 

Moved by Pablo Picasso’s iconic painting Guernica, a reaction to the 1937 bombing of a town in the artist’s home country of Spain by Nazi Germany, the members of the Keiskamma Art Project sought to articulate the same themes of death and despair, albeit through textile art and the lens of their own experience of suffering during the HIV/Aids epidemic.

This suffering is emblematic in the use in the art piece of the cow, which carries high economic, social and spiritual value in Xhosa culture. 

In Keiskamma Guernica, to show the magnitude of grief caused by the epidemic, the body of the cow is grotesquely contorted, with its knee bent, its neck stretched backwards and its mouth gaping as if letting out a mournful bellow. 

The landscape upon which the subjects are situated is characterised by barrenness, with sombre, muted oranges, browns and greys, setting the tone for the mournful faces outlined alongside a mother carrying her dead child. 

A seemingly frantic woman carries a candle amid the darkness of death, while a “sad sun”, as one of the artists Nkosazana Veronica Betani calls it, fails to shine light on the pervasive terror. 

On the edges of the tapestry, squared metals bearing crosses with the names of the deceased beneath them are lined up like graves.

“I, along with the artists, was able to honour the affected people through the stitching of the Guernica but I was also able to honour myself because I, too, live with HIV and epilepsy. 

“When I was sick, I really thought I was already dead, and that I wouldn’t make it, but just as the words say — ‘umaf’evuka, nje ngenyanga’ or ‘dying and rising, as the moon does’ — I was able to recover through art,” says Betani, invoking the title of the exhibition and the symbol of the moon with its links to reflection, feminine energy and agricultural fertility. 

“For me, art can heal because you can sit down, work and change your state of mind through creation.”

The narrative texts laid out within the artwork are informed by the title’s expression of resilience and is fore-grounded by the abundant wildlife that distinguishes many of the tapestries. 

Works like Botanicals (2013), made with appliqué, donated fabrics, embroidery and felt, are an illustration of the artists’ intimate knowledge of the natural environment in and around Hamburg. In pastel-coloured fabrics, they portray medicinal, ornamental and endangered plants in their various stages of flowering, wilting and dying as a symbol of unreserved reverence.

One of the art project’s design managers, quoted in research from the University of KwaZulu-Natal’s School of Religion, Philosophy and Ethics, says: “I feel wonder and awe for the environment. When I wake up, I hear the birds singing in the forest and I feel a sense of gratefulness to God for what has been created.” 

While the natural environment certainly serves as a muse for the members of the art project, it’s not merely revered in isolation or as a pristine, othered entity. Depictions of nature are often intertwined with human existence and culture as imagined in the Biko Tapestry (2014), which encompasses a commitment to a celebration of biocultural diversity while simultaneously paying homage to anti-apartheid activist Steve Biko. 

Fabric of life: A woman from the Keiskamma Art Project works on a tapestry.

The 1.5m-wide tapestry, with its use of embroidery and appliqué with shweshwe fabric lined against the edges, narrates Biko’s life as rooted in the Eastern Cape’s environment and progresses to his fight for the right for equal education among black children.

From left to right, it places the origins of his life in the vivid earth-brown landscape of his hometown, populated with  acacia trees and native birds, such as the crombec and the apalis, feeding on the food that the tree provides. 

A male-like figure is situated beside the tree, seemingly acting as a guardian of the fowl, cattle and wildlife while standing by a cluster of huts, alongside a 

cascading river flourishing with marine wildlife. 

The horizontal  narrative development across the tapestry then dives into Biko’s position as a leading student activist, highlights university riots and police violence and culminates, optimistically, in the era of the 1994 elections and the end of apartheid rule, symbolised by children and voters casting their ballots. 

The political events seem to eclipse the thematic preoccupations of nature as the narrative progresses, epitomising the severance between humans and the natural environment when oppression and subjugation take precedence in human affairs. 

Still, the natural world continues to surround the tapestries’ edges as the narrative progresses and the optimistic vision of a protected landscape is sustained, as seen through the recurrence of the natural world, guardian-like figures at the end of the narrative.

Umaf’evuka, Nje Ngenyanga / Dying and Rising, as the Moon Does is being shown at the Women’s Jail and Number Four sections at Constitution Hill in Joburg until the end of March.