MATTERS OF OBSESSION
The Keiskamma Tapestry: How the hands of 100 women coaxed a visual account of South African history into life, stitch by stitch
‘If there’s a crucifixion of everything, there is a resurrection. The soul paints and restores through embroidery,’ Dr Carol Hofmeyr, founder of the Keiskamma Art Project, once said.
Beginnings can set the tone, for better or worse, for what follows. They can even serve as portents. And 2022 began with both a fire and a funeral. The funeral of a man described as South Africa’s “moral compass”, Archbishop Desmond Tutu. And the day after, a fire in the houses of Parliament.
The fire became a catch-all metaphor for the many concerns governing our land; homelessness, the long shadow of postcolonialism and apartheid, social inequalities, corruption and the decay of infrastructure.
Rather like fynbos, which needs fire for seed germination to foster the next generation of plants, the Parliament fire drew a range of responses. Burn the place to the ground and concern about the safety of the artworks were two of them. Other spinoffs from the fire highlighted the plight of the homeless given that the alleged arsonist was a homeless man, along with suggestions to rebuild Parliament in a new style and, of course, lots of entertaining and highly imaginative conspiracy theories.
The artworks that were either on display or stored at Parliament included the Keiskamma Tapestry, which along with other pieces escaped the blaze – unlike the University of Cape Town fire in 2021 which destroyed the special collections library, home to many precious major collections.
The Keiskamma Tapestry
The Keiskamma Tapestry, which is housed in the hallway of the Parliament buildings, stretches 120m. It was the first of the current 15 major tapestries of the Keiskamma Trust, which was founded in the early 2000s by Dr Carol Hofmeyr, a medical doctor with a master’s degree in printmaking.
Hofmeyr recognised the need of impoverished women in rural Hamburg to earn a living and give voice to self-expression. To feed both the body and the soul. For this tapestry, the hands of 100 women coaxed a vivid visual account of South African history into life, stitch by stitch. And each work carries the embroidered signatures of its creators.
The tapestry (which is strictly an embroidery) begins with the San people and ends with the first democratic elections in 1994. According to curator Pippa Hetherington, these are not just decorative pieces, “they all have a huge depth of social and political meaning” and contain “messages of heritage identity and voice”.
Like the parliamentary fire, the Keiskamma tapestries can be likened to giant fabric mirrors: perfect for projections, attracting all the flotsam and jetsam of current mindsets. The tapestries also serve as wonderful indicators of the present temperature of South African society and are generators of conversations and discussions.
Four years ago, there was great excitement when the famous, acerbic Pulitzer Prize winner and art critic Jerry Saltz, posted the Keiskamma Guernica, along with other interpretations of Picasso’s Guernica, on Twitter. Saltz can be forgiven for posting the wrong image given that he tagged the Museum of Modern Art with a directive to buy the tapestry.
There are many retakes of Picasso’s 1937 Guernica, from straight replicas to parallels such as the 2003 US-led Iraq invasion featured in Goshka Macuga’s The Nature of the Beast, paradoxes and numerous takes such as Ron English’s Snoopy vs the Simpsons.
However, the Keiskamma Guernica, like the Keiskamma Tapestry (inspired by the 11th-century Bayeux Tapestry commemorating the Norman Conquest of England) or the Keiskamma Altarpiece referencing Grünewald’s Isenheim altarpiece (arguably the most visceral and brutal depiction of human suffering in historical Christian iconography) are not direct replicas but rather parallels. These tapestries were conceived by Hofmeyr using carefully chosen images from Europe as an initial springboard which were then interpreted by the women embroiderers. Her aim was to give the women both an understanding and pride in their heritage; rather than control the interpretations she simply provided the space so that the women’s own interpretation could emerge.
Although Hofmeyr’s approach was an intuitive one that encouraged individual responses, this was always “within the constraints of historical accuracy”. While the tapestries were process-driven, the end-product was important. The consistency of the tapestries was achieved by her constant checking for quality. And the drawings initially done by the women were later copied by women who were more accomplished at drawing.
Picasso’s Guernica references the suffering from the first-ever incident of “strafing” of the small Spanish village by the Luftwaffe. It was the only political artwork made by the apolitical artist, Picasso. The Keiskamma Guernica’s interpretation speaks to a double suffering – the devastation brought by the HIV/Aids pandemic and by Mbeki’s denial of the disease. The Keiskamma Tapestry has many parallels with the Bayeux tapestry, such as embroidery in service to storytelling, but has one primary divergence: it gives voice to the vanquished rather than the victors. The spirited subversiveness of the women is seen in the sly stitching of cow motifs onto the tapestries in rebellion against a patriarchy that forbids women to own cows.
While the tapestries encourage myriad interpretations, these nuances make for a richer, deeper experience. It must be noted that they were made by ordinary women at risk – at blood temperature of survival not in the fire and ice climates of ideologies and rarified academia. Not to acknowledge this means losing sight of the everyday suffering in which the works were conceived. And while the 19th-century idea of universality may be extremely unpopular, the power of these works is that they give voice to our fundamental, global humanness and needs, and as such transcend cultural and national divides.
The retrospective has the stamp of approval from renowned curator and collector Azu Nwagbogu, who writes that “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.”
The tapestries have earned a number of accolades: Brett Kebble Merit Award 2003; FNB Gold award 2004; nominated as a BSA finalist in 2009; and the Keiskamma Tapestry was exhibited at the 13th Venice Biennale in 2012.
But to date no one has seen these national treasures all together under one roof. That was until curator Hetherington was inspired to do so in response to the cavernous museums of New York. She felt that spaces like these were “just crying out for the tapestries from the Keiskamma Art Project”, especially given “the backdrop of global issues around subjugation, colonialisation, Black Lives Matter and women’s voices”.
The motivation to have a retrospective exhibition was an acknowledgment of “where the Keiskamma tapestries sit in the trajectory of art history in South Africa and the African Continent.”
The retrospective marks the 20th anniversary of the Keiskamma Art Project and the 25th anniversary of the signing of the South African Constitution.
“Mention the Keiskamma tapestries to someone” Hetherington says, “and they will confidently say: ‘I know all about Keiskamma tapestries, I’ve seen the Guernica’ or ‘yes, I know all about the Keiskamma tapestries, I’ve seen the altarpiece’. But typically, people have only ever seen the artwork in isolation.” The problem is “there are all these magnificent, iconic crucial pieces sitting in far-flung places all over South Africa and in the world and no one has actually seen them all together. And “very few people actually know that there are 15 huge iconic tapestries”.
This year, for the first time, all 15 tapestries can be viewed under one roof and are accessible to all.
One of the purposes of this retrospective is to bring people closer to the work, explains Hetherington. And it is not just to the narratives “but the actual stitches, made by human hands”.
Exhibitions of this calibre are hugely costly. Normally in First World countries, museums would back such a project rather than the trust having to resort to crowdfunding. Some have suggested that any funds generated should go directly to the trust rather than to an exhibition. Hetherington, however, is adamant that’s “it’s been a worthwhile investment in creating visibility for the Keiskamma Art Project which is the face of the Keiskamma Trust as a whole”, adding: “we have built fantastic relationships with wonderful supporters some of which have bypassed the retrospective”.
To help raise funds the embroiderers have made tapestries to sell. The embroiderers were paid for their work while any profit is kept for the retrospective with the actual production going directly back into the Keiskamma Art Project. Rather than viewing the retrospective as a marketing tool, Hetherington sees it as” recognition of a 20-year trajectory”.
While Hetherington explains that structurally Constitution Hill might not be the easiest space in which to hold an exhibition, “symbolically it’s a perfect fit”. And being connected with other global institutions such as the Smithsonian means it will be taken to the world. The Hill is also making a big comeback after Covid with exciting events in the pipeline.
What you will see at the exhibition
Instead of being conceived chronologically the exhibition has been curated thematically, including categories such as Art and Illness, Environment and the Natural World, Resurrection, Occupation and Resistance and Our Daily Bread.
The retrospective will be held in the old Women’s Jail and the Men’s Jail (otherwise known as No.4) on Constitution Hill. The tapestries share a space with and are contextualised by the democratic spirit of the permanent exhibitions already installed in these premises. It seems fitting that to reach these premises one has to walk past the flame of democracy.
Artists who have created the tapestries will personalize the tapestries with public talks. And in the spirit of the prevalent spirit of interactivity, the public will be invited to work on an embroidery, to add a few stitches of their own and get to experience first-hand the process involved in creating these works.
The wish list includes having musicians from the Keiskamma Music Academy perform at the opening, a printed catalogue and an interactive map with the aim of giving visitors an audio experience.
Creating educational curriculums
One of the Keiskamma Project’s aims is to create a living archive – or an active archive, where the Keiskamma tapestries are built into educational curriculums and students will be encouraged to spend real time with embroiderers instead of engaging at a remove in academic debates.
It’s important to recognise that these tapestries did not emerge fully formed from the hands of the rural Hamburg women like a motherless Aphrodite on the foam. Granted, the women were familiar with sewing so making embroidery, was Hofmyer’s choice of medium. But without her steering vision and incredible dedication these profound and beautiful works, the fruit of 20 years, would simply not exist. However, Hofmyer is quick to mention that the project was hugely indebted to the “the support of many, many people who were accepted by and befriended by” the woman embroiderers of Hamburg and who in return “shared their skills and excellent teaching”.
In creating the Keiskamma Art Project, Hofmeyr responded from a place of deep humanity with a compelling need to address and change the suffering she saw. She is an extremely modest, quiet person with no desire to be in the limelight. As a mark of their deep respect the embroiderers have included her in the Guernica tapestry as a distressed figure, arms held up and head tilted back in despair and helplessness around the HIV-Aids pandemic.
Hofmyer will be honoured in the centre of the retrospective by a display of a personal tapestry based on Bruehel’s Fallen Angels that she worked on with embroiderers, titled Resurrection. To contextualise her role, a wall piece commemorating her dedication will be placed next to this tapestry, indicating that none of it was possible without her.
It is hoped that the exhibition will travel within the African continent and there is a possibility of going to the new museum in Benin at a time when appropriated works are being returned home. DM/ML
There is a visually rich book available on the Keiskamma artwork by Brenda Schmahmann titled The Keiskamma Art Project, Restoring Hope and Livelihoods.
The retrospective on the Keiskamma tapestries will open on 24 September, for Heritage Day, at the old Women’s Jail and the Men’s Jail on Constitution Hill.