Big events – like pandemics and natural disasters – often affect small rural communities disproportionately. And so it was when Covid-19 hit South Africa and the embroiderers and artists of the Keiskamma Art Project in the Eastern Cape hamlet of Hamburg found themselves locked down at home without a means of income.
Instead of sitting around wringing their hands, each stitcher set to work on a piece of self-designed handwork that would eventually come together to become the project’s incredibly moving Covid-19 Resilience Tapestry – depicting the people of Hamburg’s dogged will to survive in the face of unspeakable calamity.
This remarkable hand-embroidered tapestry, and several other large-scale works from the project’s two-decade-plus history, are currently on display at Constitution Hill in Johannesburg as part of the Umaf’ Evuka, nje Ngenyanga/Dying and Rising, As the Moon Does retrospective exhibition, supported by Hollard.
‘Works of unity’
It’s an exhibition about a rural community’s resurrection from the ashes of despair, and marks the first time all of the celebrated Keiskamma tapestries – now housed in collections around the world – have been displayed in one place.
These giant hand-stitched textile pieces, regarded as artworks in their own right, hold a special significance for Keiskamma Art Project founder Dr Carol Hofmeyr, who handed over the reins of the project to Michaela Howse in 2019, just before Covid struck.
“Keiskamma artworks are truly works of unity rather than works of any individual artist or stitcher,” she says. “The end result is always miraculous, and this exhibition speaks to the greatness of these works and their remarkable impact.”
Musician Nomsa Mazwai, a long-standing champion and friend of Keiskamma, is among many who have paid tribute to this example of empowerment through the arts: “The story of Keiskamma is a story of sisterhood, a story of family, a story of connection, a story of reality. It’s about human beings connecting with each other and moving forward together.
“This project has gone from strength to strength and has had an impact on so many lives, creating opportunities for the people living in Hamburg.”
Art as a tool to build self-esteem
Yet Dr Hofmeyr says she “had no idea” it would mushroom into a local and global artistic phenomenon – one that has been praised for archiving the rural Eastern Cape’s collective memory and preserving its oral history – when she started it in 2000.
“It was just an instinctive response to try and create work for people and teach them to make something they could sell. I had a deep belief – and still do – in the power of being an artist to build self-esteem.”
A medical doctor turned artist, Dr Hofmeyr knew how art could heal through creativity and self-expression. “It had happened to me personally, but I never dreamt it [the fledgling project] would literally snowball. In fact, it was like an avalanche! It still feels to me that I kicked a stone and it just rolled and rolled, and gained a momentum of its own.”
As the non-profit grew in stature and employed more people, so too did the pressure to ensure the artists kept creating sellable work, knowing that they depend on the income to feed their families.
Embroidering their daily reality
“It’s a very rural community with very high unemployment, and the people have been through so many traumas over the years, from the dispossession of land in the 1800s to the homeland system. These big events can have a devastating impact on a small rural community.”
The last big event was Covid, when the project’s work all but ground to a halt because it was unable to produce the collaborative large-scale artworks that are its lifeblood.
Fortunately, the “sisterhood” of stitchers resolved that if they couldn’t get together as a collective to create, they would keep busy by each stitching her own daily experiences into life – little realising this would eventually become a composite artwork.
Dr Hofmeyr says it’s “very, very moving” to see all these precious works – including the Covid-19 Resilience Tapestry – collected at Constitution Hill. She is grateful that corporate sponsorship from Hollard made this gargantuan feat of logistics – shipping these fragile embroidered masterpieces from all over the globe – possible. The insurer is also commissioning a new large-scale embroidery from the Keiskamma artists.
“It’s so lovely to see some works that we haven’t seen for 10 years or longer, and the memories come flooding back,” Dr Hofmeyr says. “It’s a huge, huge thing.”
Storytelling through art
For Heidi Brauer, Hollard’s group brand executive, it is a privilege to bring such a landmark exhibition to the public. “We strive to be a catalyst for positive and enduring change, and so the opportunity to be involved in something as important as this is just magnificent for us.
“Being very mindful of the power of storytelling through art, we realise that the stories told by the Keiskamma artists are not only about the past – they are very much about the future. And this ties in with our brand purpose of enabling better futures, by constantly learning from each other and growing together.”
The Keiskamma artworks on display offer a vivid and nuanced snapshot of the community’s lived reality, ranging from the ravages of HIV/Aids shown in the Keiskamma Guernica to the Keiskamma Tapestry that tracks the country’s troubled colonial and apartheid history – all reimagined from the perspective of these rural women’s on-the-ground daily reality.
“I think that’s the biggest thing we’ve done – we’ve made artworks that speak of how life is in Hamburg,” reflects Dr Hofmeyr.
“In a fragmented community, we’ve built bonds and the women are very close. They take pride not so much in outside recognition but in how they have come together as a group who support each other.”
By Christina Kennedy