Maverick Life

Powerful portraits of a community: the Keiskama Art Project

By Jabulile Dlamini-Qwesha 15 June 2020

Keiskamma Altarpiece open second layer (Image courtesy of Keiskama)

The women of the Keiskama Art Project in Hamburg in the Eastern Cape have begun a process of creating a tapestry that reflects the resilience of a society overcoming the challenges of Covid-19 together.

Jabulile Dlamini-Qwesha

In the scenic seaside town of Hamburg, situated between East London and Port Alfred, lives a small community made up of different villages on the Keiskama River bank. There, the women of the Keiskama Art Project use art to share the intricacies of life in that part of the world.

As a community that has centred art at the heart of its healing, they hope that, over the years, sharing these experiences and the process of weaving dreams, and fears into images will be a way of dealing with them, while protecting their incomes.

Now they are planning to create a Covid-19 tapestry and the process will be split into phases. This first month is a research phase where they are collecting experiences from before and during lockdown, and how they are adapting to this new situation.

“We will combine illustrations that mirror our experiences in our villages, but also statistics and announcements we have heard in the news, and what we are affected by in neighbouring cities. We are still developing our visual language for this tapestry and sharing information as we work towards our imagery,” Dr Carol Hofmeyer, the founder of the Keiskama Trust, tells Maverick Life.

Nombuyiselo Malumbezo, one of the artists on the project, says that “corona is something [strange] and I am afraid of it even today”. She explains that life under Levels 4 and 5 felt particularly unusual. “People wearing masks, looking [strange], staying at home, not even going to town, school or work. People were sick from this virus and when you are looking on the television, people are dying. It is painful.”

Nosithembele Dada, who is living with a disability, says that she worries about whether the healthcare system in the Eastern Cape is equipped to care for the increasing number of cases. “I’m supposed to go to Frere hospital for my check-up, but I’m scared because when I was watching the news, I saw that hospitals were not ready for this corona.”

The banning of alcohol during Levels 4 and 5 caused much irritation among some South Africans, but Nomfuneko Bopani saw it as a godsend “My son gained weight and he made a beautiful vegetable garden. We are always so fearful for our family members, but we trust in God. I do wish the government had waited for the cure before lifting it again.”

Attending funerals continues to be a point of contention in curbing the national spread of Covid-19. Keiskama Art Programme manager Cebo Mvubu recounts how he received a call from Port Elizabeth notifying him that one of his family members had been admitted to hospital on 5 June 2020; she passed away on 6 June.

“It was sad because she was admitted on Friday and then she died the very next day. I was planning to attend the funeral, but I struggled to get a permit, it was later confirmed that she died of [the] coronavirus. And then a car from the department of health was driving around asking everybody who had attended the funeral to get tested and prepare for quarantine. I am just thinking now that if I had gone, I was not going to be accepted in my village.”

Job losses are also becoming a widespread issue as the lockdown continues. “People who are living in rural areas like ours that depend on fishing, crafting and art are suffering the most during this lockdown. They can’t fish or produce artworks to put food on their tables. I’m glad that we are going on Level 3, maybe it will bring us better results,” says Aviwe Myataza.

Physical distancing is making us all see the value of digital connections and Dr Carol Hofmeyer points out that this is an area where the art project needs much help. “We want to improve our communication and technological abilities as an art project so that we can connect with our supporters around the world and build ties with our international community. We are improving how we connect among ourselves too, making use of WhatsApp and digital photography to share our stories.”

The 55 artists involved in the creation of the tapestry don’t want to rush through the process of creating the Covid-19 piece. “We want the making of our tapestry to be integrated into our lives, to support us and inspire us during this time”, says Hofmeyer.

Back in 2004, the Keiskama Alterpiece came about in a similar fashion. The three-panel artwork combined embroidery, beadwork and photographs depicting various situations of life in a community that was highly affected by HIV/Aids. The first panel of embroidery shows elders and children mourning loved ones who lost their lives to Aids-related illness, the second panel door opens to a vibrant life of abundance that is untainted by the threat of death.

As fate would have it, antiretroviral drugs first became available in South Africa during the time when it was being sewn and it’s said that the hopefulness that came with seeing actual recoveries was stitched into the work. On the third panel are two life-sized photographs of local grandmothers with their grandchildren, which represents the strength of grandparents who had to look after orphaned children. The outer panels show scenes of tranquillity around the Keiskama River and mountains, on which the artists memorialised relatives who had passed away.

Keiskamma Altarpiece open first layer
Keiskamma Altarpiece open second layer (Image courtesy of Keiskama)
Keiskamma Altarpiece closed

The piece took six months to make and was displayed at the National Arts Festival in Grahamstown. It became a pivotal artwork reflecting how communities had suffered and shown resilience in the epidemic. It especially honoured grandmothers who bore the brunt of the epidemic as they lost their children and took on their orphaned grandchildren.

“In our Covid-19 tapestry, we won’t imagine a world without the coronavirus, we know that eventually we will manage the disease. We want to fight it through good health awareness and better education in our communities for now,” says Hofmeyer.

With this Covid-19-inspired tapestry, The Keiskama Art Project seeks to emphasise the need for solidarity, using this crisis to become stronger, not only as an art project, but also as a community. DM/ML/MC

If you would like to donate to the project, the team behind the Keiskama Art Project has set up a crowdfunding campaign here. 

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