Tapestry of rural grim life told through textile by Keiskamma Art Project exhibition at Con Hill opening on Heritage Day

By Edward Tsumele, CITYLIFE/ARTS Editor

If  you went to Constitution Hill  specifically its Number Four section and the Atrium Section of the Women’s Gaol you will see heritage of a different kind, and not the pain and suffering suffered by those jailed there in the past, mainly for political activism. Yes the walls are covered by tapestries of history of a rural community in a democratic South Africa, fighting different battles from those incarcerated during apartheid. And these battles range from inadequate public health services, to Aids and recently to the global pandemic.

It is a space where the past meets with the present, in an uncomfortable reminder that as things change the more they remain the same.

The media was taken on a tour of these tapestries, that make you admire the vision by the person who started this project, while at the same time also realise the weaknesses within the health system in contemporary South Africa, particularly during the time when there was that issue of the so called Aids  Denialism by the government in the 90s and hence hesitancy in making life saving treatment available to those who needed it to save lives.

But one other important thing that will make you smile is the fact that these pieces of art works, were created mainly by rural folklore that were mainly self-taught, but added to shine artistically through workshops. That project today employs 35 people from the isolated Eastern  Cape  Village of Hamburg, earning a living through creating art works that have travelled the world and today are in the collection of prestigious museums, private hands and public institutions.

Let CITYLIFE/ARTS take you through this important historic exhibition that will be on display for public viewing for the next six months and of course the main players that have made this possible over the years. An extraordinary exhibition of tapestries created by an artist’s collective in the Eastern Cape, is set to open on Heritage Day (24 September 2022) at Constitution Hill in Johannesburg.

Founded in 2000, the Keiskamma Art Project in Hamburg, Eastern Cape, produces major textile artworks, which aid in the archiving of the rural Eastern Cape’s collective memory and the preservation of oral history. This unique project has won numerous awards, including the Business and Arts South Africa (BASA) Award and the Chairman’s Premier Award (2011), which recognises sustained and extraordinary commitment to the arts in South Africa. 

Marking twenty years since the launch of the Keiskamma Art Project, Umaf’ evuka, nje ngenyanga / Dying and Rising as the Moon Does, a retrospective exhibition brings together a selection of iconic pieces into one immersive experience. It is an inquiry, through embroidery and storytelling, into the fabric of society, the meaning of humanity and the stark realities of illness. This retrospective showcases the community’s conversations using art as a medium of expression and healing. 

World-renowned curator and collector, Azu Nwagbogu, co-creator of Umaf’ evuka, nje ngenyanga / Dying and Rising as the Moon, says, “This retrospective exhibition foregrounds the traditional oral histories and acts as a loudhailer through which to amplify the stories and experiences by, and for the people who are otherwise not heard. Through simultaneous narration and documentation, we hope to foster a safe environment to promote healing and sharing to bring people and diverse communities together.”

This year, Constitution Hill, a living museum that tells the story of South Africa’s journey to democracy, is observing the founding principles of our transformative Constitution.  Steeped in history, Constitution Hill is a profoundly symbolic site. Against this backdrop, the Keiskamma artists have made three prototypes towards a beautiful, limited edition tapestry series titled ‘Our South Africa.’  In these exquisite pieces they reveal what they value most about our democracy and what the pillars of our Constitution – Equality, Freedom and Human dignity – mean in their daily lives as women from an impoverished area of the Eastern Cape. The finished artworks, richly coloured, intricate and thought-provoking, make up a symbolic narrative of possibility for a resilient community. Individually, the tapestries represent an intimate expression of personal hopes and dreams, manifested stitch by stitch.

Heidi Brauer, Group Executive: Brand for the Hollard Insurance Group comments “We’re proud to have been able to play a small part in bringing this immensely exciting project to life. The sense of possibility embraced by the incredible women of Hamburg, artists who pour their hearts and souls into their art, is an example to us all. The telling of these stories of South Africa’s past, provide important stop-off points in our collective journey towards a better future. We are in awe of these change-making creators, and so thrilled to be associated with them through this retrospective.”

Rob Brozin, Co-Founder of Nando’s and trustee of the Constitution Hill Trust, says, “People need to see these incredible artworks. They are interwoven in and through our heritage. Exhibiting the artworks, especially in places of historical importance, will allow people of all backgrounds to engage with the remarkable human story of Hamburg as a village, and South Africa as a country.” 

Jonathan Goldberg, the first official corporate sponsor for the retrospective, a leading voice in Labour Law and Broad-Based Black Economic Empowerment, and CEO of Global Business Solutions, says, “The Keiskamma project is one of a kind and an example of what we can do in Africa, even in the most impoverished communities. These works of art are world class and we are privileged to hang them in our boardrooms or foyers. They symbolise what we all fought for in South Africa and we should put our full weight in celebrating these artworks with our country, and in celebration of the 25 years since the signing of our Constitution. This not only exposes these works to the world and South Africa, but deservedly supports the project’s sustainability.” 

For more information on acquisitions of the ‘Our South Africa’ tapestry series please visit https://keiskammaartproject.org/ for more information about the exhibition please send an email to Pippa Hetherington or Cathy Stanley, co-curators at retrospective@keiskammaartproject.org

Please share

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *