Maverick Life

MATTERS OF THE ART

Eastern Cape’s rich tapestry — Keiskamma embroiderers collaborate in new project on display at Spier

Eastern Cape’s rich tapestry — Keiskamma embroiderers collaborate in new project on display at Spier
‘Emhlabeni ongcwele’ by Asanda Kupa in collaboration with Keiskamma Art Project. (Photo: Spier Arts Trust)

South African fine artists and the Keiskamma Art Project come together in the latest Spier exhibition, ‘In Search of the Birds of the Sea’.

The Eastern Cape hills are rolling in greenery and from the earth, life springs up in a burst of colour. Goats nibble on shrubs and a man herds a flock of sheep. Spears of orange aloe flowers pierce the blue sky. 

These are the scenes flanking the walls of the Spier Old Wine Cellar. Their stories are not made with paint and brush but with needle and thread. 

Keiskamma embroiderers

‘Imvomvo’ by Nkosinathi Quwe in collaboration with Keiskamma Art Project. (Photo: Spier Arts Trust)

Keiskamma embroiderers

Detail, ‘Imvomvo’ by Nkosinathi Quwe in collaboration with Keiskamma Art Project. (Photo: Spier Arts Trust)

In Search of the Birds of the Sea opened on 10 November at Spier Wine Farm, Stellenbosch. The exhibition is a collaboration between the Spier Arts Trust and the Keiskamma Art Project, which paired six South African fine artists with renowned embroiders from Hamburg in the Eastern Cape. 

The artists, Asanda Kupa, Henk Serfontein, Nkosinathi Quwe, Pippa Hetherington, Robyn Pretorius and Tamlin Blake, all spent time in Hamburg, working with their own team of artisans for the project. 

The outcome is a collection of tapestries that embody “joy, purpose and wonder”, says Blake, the chief curator at Spier Arts Trust, whose own piece is also on display.

Viewed as a collective, the pieces show the beauty of collaboration and the pleasure of basking in creativity. 

The Keiskamma Art Project was founded in 2000 and is now known worldwide for the beautiful tapestry works such as the Keiskamma Tapestry and Guernica that it has produced. The project is also a crucial part of documenting the rural Eastern Cape’s collective memory and preserving its oral history, as well as being a source of upliftment in the community

Keiskamma embroiderers

‘Emtonjeni: The Well of Hamburg’s Soul’ by Robyn Pretorius in collaboration with Keiskamma Art Project. (Photo: Spier Arts Trust)

Keiskamma embroiderers

Detail: Mama Nozeti from the Keiskamma Art Project is depicted in ‘Emtonjeni: The Well of Hamburg’s Soul’ by Robyn Pretorius in collaboration with Keiskamma Art Project. (Photo: Spier Arts Trust)

Robyn Pretorius tells Daily Maverick she went to Hamburg with an open mind to start the project. Through fieldwork, she “immersed herself in the community”; living in Hamburg, and attending community meetings and events.

“I found myself sitting with a spiritual leader, telling me the history of the place and the significance. After about a week with him and engaging, that’s where the stories came in,” Pretorius explains. 

“I asked the group to make small sketches of things that they found relevant or connected with the landscape because one thing that you notice about the rural Eastern Cape is that it is so connected to nature.”

It would not be a Pretorius piece without a striking portrait — one of her best-known works is the mural of Banyana Banyana coach Desiree Ellis in Salt River — so at the centre of the Keiskamma piece sits Nozeti Makhubalo, fondly referred to as Mama Nozeti. 

Entitled Emtonjeni: The Well of Hamburg’s Soul, Pretorius has depicted the interwoven reality of nature and community as well as the influence of the elders of the Keiskamma Art Project.

Cultural tolerance

“There was a lovely exchange in how we understand art and the world, and also as artists and creatives in how we create communities,” Pretorius says. 

“The project embodies what cultural tolerance is: respect, exchanging ideas, creativity and just working together.”

Keiskamma embroiderers

Detail, ‘Emhlabeni ongcwele’ by Asanda Kupa in collaboration with Keiskamma Art Project. (Photo: Spier Arts Trust)

Kupa’s work also centres on the community, as his piece, Emhlabeni ongcwele depicts spiritual connection found in the Eastern Cape through the bodies of a group of people dressed in brightly coloured garments. 

“I work with crowds, that’s my thing,” Kupa says. Just as the work is a collaboration, Kupa wanted to highlight the collaborations between humans in the name of upliftment.

“We chose to use different church uniforms, with different types of people from different backgrounds coming together for a common cause: hope,” he says. 

At the centre of the exhibition space hangs Hetherington’s piece Cuttings. Here, pieces of fabric are stitched together to form dresses that hang on wire; different fabrics overlap and marry together to create strong silhouettes, memories of women that one must walk through and interact with to fully experience the exhibit. 

Keiskamma embroiderers

‘Interlaced Portrait’ by Pippa Hetherington. (Photo: Spier Arts Trust)

Keiskamma embroiderers

‘Cuttings 1820-2020’ by Pippa Hetherington in collaboration with Keiskamma Art Project. (Photo: Spier Arts Trust)

Serfontein’s piece, ukubhala ngesandla / handskrif / handwriting stands out starkly from the others. While many pieces pay homage to nature, land and people, he has taken a different approach. Upon a dark background, four hands rise up, with phrases stitched into their palms. 

“Collaboration is about activating that space between yourself and the other and allowing creators to have some form of agency in the artwork. So it was not only about me, but it was also about including the narratives of my four artists in the artwork,” Serfontein explains. 

“I asked the [group of embroiderers] to go home and come up with a line and message of some sort, which then eventually became almost like direct self-portraits of each artist.”

Keiskamma embroiderers

‘ukubhala ngesandla / handskrif / handwriting’ by Henk Serfontein in collaboration with Keiskamma Art Project. (Photo: Spier Arts Trust)

Veronica Betani, one of the Keiskamma embroiderers working with Serfontein, says the hands featured in the piece became a mirror, reflecting the work and hopes of their creators. 

“This is a hand that brings life. This is a hand that brings trouble. I wrote on my hand that may the Lord … help us and drag our kids back from drugs. 

“[Serfontein] is painting, we are stitching. I said, ‘Okay, we are going to paint with a needle … we are going to show you flames.” DM

Gallery

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