/ 2 December 2023

Quilt restoration project bears fruit

Freedom Tapestry Restored (detail)2 (1)
A stitch in time: A detail from The Freedom Tapestry, which is in the process of being mended.

The Constitutional Court Art Collection has welcomed back to its public gallery a quilt titled The Truth Tree, which has been refreshed and restored. 

It was made for the gallery by a collective at the Bushman Heritage Museum (formerly Bethesda Art Centre) in 2006. They are a group of resilient and talented women from the town of Nieu-Bethesda in the Eastern Cape. 

The restoration of another artwork made by this collective, The Freedom Quilt, is close to completion.

The background of the tapestries tells of the trauma and injustice prevalent in many South African communities. For the women of Nieu-Bethesda, abandonment, abuse, hunger and alcoholism were the norm.

It is often through a change in perspective that a healing journey begins. For these Karoo women, their art was that extraordinary journey. 

To make The Truth Tree, each woman intricately wove her personal story onto a leaf, bravely exposing the often hidden suffering that plagued their community.

The creation of The Truth Tree broke this silence, providing a medium through which the women could find their voices.

But time moves on and, nearly 18 years later, the collective needed to revisit the work. 

Jeni Couzyn, the founder and artistic director of the Bushman Heritage Museum, told the Mail & Guardian that the decision to restore the two tapestries was born out of her shock after receiving images of them from the constitutional court. This moved her to undertake the repair work, driven by a commitment to preserve their cultural legacy.

The arrival of The Truth Tree for restoration almost 20 years after it was created was an emotional time for the group. 

It brought back intense memories. All the stories on the leaves were stories the group identified as having been part of their own experience growing up and all the women who had bravely told those stories were women they had known and loved. Many are still alive. 

The opportunity to make The Truth Tree beautiful and fresh again was welcomed and seen as a way to honour the courage of the women who had broken their silence.

The women who had worked on the quilt were shocked to see how much of the colour had bleached, how the fabric had frayed and how the embroidery had deteriorated. 

The main damage had been caused by dust and direct sunlight. 

Sandra Sweers, the lead artist, knew at first glance exactly what she wanted to do to fix it. 

She began the process by taking the tapestry apart, piece by piece. All the women at the centre helped and every stitch was carefully unpicked. 

The intention was to replace the parts of the quilt that had been damaged beyond repair with the same figures, forms and text, retaining the authenticity of the drawings each of the original artists had made to express her story in her leaf. Where necessary, faded fabrics and thread were replaced, using the same colours. 

When all the separate leaves had been refreshed, the tapestry was re-assembled by hand. 

The trunk of the tree had faded badly, so more colour and detail were applied and some new insects created. The background was renewed and refreshed in the same way. All the leaves which did not have figures and text on them were replaced.

As The Truth Tree was being renewed, attention turned to The Freedom Quilt, a project that underwent more significant changes to incorporate Bushman mythology. It represents an ongoing struggle for freedom in Nieu-Bethesda.

Couzyn notes that despite the fact that many residents feel as if they are still living under apartheid, the creation and restoration of the tapestries served as a means for them to reconnect with their identity.

“What really sets them free is reconnecting with their own culture through the Bushmen methodology.” 

The central metaphor of The Freedom Quilt revolves around a biblical story, with Nelson Mandela symbolising the energy stirring the waters of change. The ripples signify the arrival of democracy, the rediscovery of Bushman origins and the artists spreading their culture globally.

“The Bushman Heritage Museum (formerly the Bethesda Art Centre) has been incredibly generous in undertaking the restoration of their two tapestries in the Constitutional Court Art Collection, cared for by the Constitutional Court Trust. This work forms part of our larger conservation programme of ensuring the preservation of all artworks in the CCAC. The Truth Tree is currently on display in the Constitutional Court’s public art gallery and can be viewed over the festive period before it is taken down again for a period of rest in 2024. The Freedom Quilt will be put on a period display next year as part of our revolving rotations of art on public display at the Constitutional Court” says Francois Lion-Cachet, curator at the  Constitutional Court Art Collection.

The tapestries of Nieu-Bethesda are powerful symbols of resilience, identity, and transformation. From The Truth Tree’s revelation of hidden suffering to The Freedom Quilt’s ongoing narrative, these artworks encapsulate the spirit of a community overcoming adversity.