HERITAGE DAY EXHIBITION
Preserving a local community’s memory and healing through historic Keiskamma Art Project
The massive collection, both in scale and history, has travelled all over the world to much acclaim. The art project now celebrates two decades of existence as the exhibition opens on Heritage Day.
“Emotional” is how the artists and curators describe the process and works that comprise the The Keiskamma Art Project, which will open The ‘Umaf’ evuka, nje ngenyanga/Dying and rising, as the moon does’ exhibition on 24 September, Heritage Day.
It is an exquisitely detailed and thought-provoking collection of artworks by the community of Hamburg in the Eastern Cape. According to a media statement, the “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”.
The massive collection, both in scale and history, has travelled all over the world to much acclaim. It is now celebrating two decades of existence.
A description of the artworks says that “the tapestry takes inspiration from the 11th century Bayeux Tapestry in France, depicting the Norman conquest of England in 1066. The Keiskamma ‘Tapestry’ is painstakingly hand-stitched rather than woven on a loom, so the word “tapestry” is something of a misnomer.” The works are described as “a powerfully moving visual narrative of South African history, told from the point of view, not of the victor, but of the oppressed, marginalised and silenced”.
Dr Carol Hofmeyr is the founder of the Keiskamma Art Project. She explains that it was founded in the year 2,000, at a time of great sadness in the small Eastern Cape town of Hamburg, as HIV/Aids was taking the lives of so many members of the community, leaving behind young children to be raised by grandparents.
Hofmeyr says the community was very poor and the project was also started as a means to generate income, while finding self-expression. The project features “textile works, beadwork and wireworks, all of which aid in the archiving of the Eastern Cape rural collective memory and preservation of oral history” and has won numerous awards.
Walking into the Women’s Jail at Johannesburg’s Constitution Hill, one is drawn by the sheer size of the installations, whether made of the hessian cloth reams or with metal, beads, paintwork and photographs. The tapestry that is woven throughout the Women’s jail gives a historical account that shows the interaction of Xhosa people with the San and Khoisan right up, and on the other side, gives an account of the first ten years of democracy.
Going out and into the Men’s Jail area, one encounters the 7m x 2m embroidery work that tracks the second pandemic of Covid-19 that the rural community had to navigate. Right from the illustration of President Cyril Ramaphosa’s announcement of the pandemic, to lockdown, to present day. The Covid piece was completed just a month ago, and depicts life in Hamburg through the use of seasons, from winter to summer as people got ill, some died and most survived the disease.
Opposite the Covid-19 work, is the colossal Keiskamma altarpiece, an intricately detailed depiction of how HIV/Aids ravaged the community, starting off from the dark days of death and uncertainty, to when antiretrovirals were finally made available for people. The use initially of dark and dreary colours graduates into more lively colours. The community of Hamburg was able to band together and express their grief. But also go through a healing process by channelling their energy towards the embroidery that depicts life in the rural town, but also the devastation and death brought by HIV/Aids, which was exacerbated by government’s denialism.
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A prominent feature in the artworks is the depiction of the Keiskamma river, which runs through most of the artworks as a sign of life and restoration.
Veronica Betani, an artist on the Keiskamma Art Project, said that the retrospective of the art project is important to her because “as I’ve been working with Keiskamma for many many years, I always think about when we pass away, what will be remembered about us. So this retrospective, to me, is something big as an artist, seeing those works that we did long ago. This will empower, encourage and make us look further and to uplift us even more. It is very important to me”.
Cebo Mvubu, a painter by training, is part of the project. He was present at the tour at Con Hill, and said he feels “proud” to see the exhibition come to life. “It is very meaningful for me because I am going to see all the works of Keiskamma Art Project since it started, up to now. I’m able to see where I am now and where I come from. It will bring all the memories of the past and achievements. Coming from a remote area from a small village in Hamburg, Eastern Cape, and to exhibit work in Con Hill in Joburg, I feel honoured.” DM/MC
Celebrating two decades of the Keiskamma Art Project is a retrospective exhibition at Constitution Hill, Johannesburg. It runs from 24 September 2022 to 24 March 2023.