Reviving the Tapestry Tradition
Throughout history, textiles have served as a conduit to preserve cultural heritage and chronicle the narratives of the past. In contemporary times, a slew of projects have emerged, drawing inspiration from the famed Bayeux Tapestry—a revered 11th-century embroidery that immortalized the Norman Conquest of England in 1066.
A Triumph of Expression: The Keiskamma Art Project
One embodiment of this artistic revival is the Keiskamma Art Project—a collective of 140 artists, predominantly women, hailing from the village of Hamburg in South Africa’s Eastern Cape. Celebrated for their monumental hand-stitched creations, this project has now garnered the spotlight in a sweeping retrospective showcased at Johannesburg’s Old Women’s Jail of Constitution Hill. Titled “Umaf’ evuka, nje ngenyanga / Dying and Rising as the Moon Does,” this exhibition unites two decades’ worth of artworks, transforming the very walls that once incarcerated anti-apartheid icons like Fatima Meer, Albertina Sisulu, and Winnie Madikizela-Mandela.
A Multifaceted Narrative: Echoing Local Realities
The Keiskamma artists deftly weave a tapestry that encapsulates myriad local experiences, delving into issues ranging from climate change and HIV/AIDS to the relentless pursuit of racial equity and gender parity. The centerpiece of the exhibit is the Keiskamma Tapestry—a defining chapter in the project’s journey. Crafted in 2003, this landmark work of community embroidery spans 120 meters of red-ochre hessian, preserving the Eastern Cape’s 300-year history.
A Story Unfolds: From Ancient Bushmen to Modern Struggles
The narrative of the Keiskamma Tapestry commences with the silhouettes of the San bushmen, mirroring their portrayal in ancient rock art. It unfolds to encapsulate facets of everyday rural life, Xhosa culture, colonial incursions, and the atrocities inflicted by Dutch and British soldiers during the 18th and 19th Century Frontier Wars. The journey takes us further, witnessing Nelson Mandela’s poignant act of burning his passbook in protest against the Sharpeville Massacre—adjacent to the figure of “apartheid architect” Hendrink Verwoerd. Alongside hand-stitched vote boxes from South Africa’s first democratic election in 1994 are scenes of resistance and endurance, such as the Soweto uprising.
An experienced Keiskamma artist, Veronica Betani, captures the essence: “When we look back, we’re kind of reinstalling our past for the world to know who we are.
Stitching Legacies: A Reflection of Community Resilience
Azu Nwagbogu, co-curator of the exhibition, aptly articulates, “All of South Africa’s unsolved colonial legacies and harsh pandemic histories may be found in the history of Hamburg. ” Through meticulous stitching, the unwavering spirit and determination of the people are interwoven into these tapestries.
From Workshop to Communal Hub: Birth of the Keiskamma Art Project
Initiated in 2002 by the Keiskamma Trust, the Keiskamma Art Project sprang to life through embroidery workshops that offered newfound creative avenues. The endeavor, fueled by paying artists for their creations, flourished, transforming the Keiskamma studio into a haven where local history is studied, memories are shared, and narratives find a home within tapestries. These artistic endeavors have now evolved into a crucial source of local income, simultaneously serving as a means to collectively heal from personal and collective trauma experienced by many black South Africans.
Echoes of Resilience: From the Guernica to the Altarpiece
The Keiskamma Tapestry’s overwhelming acclaim inspired subsequent memorial works such as the Keiskamma Guernica and the Keiskamma Altarpiece. These beautiful works of art reflect the devastating effects of HIV/AIDS in Hamburg. The Guernica tapestry incorporates blankets from the Keiskamma Treatment Centre, while the Altarpiece pays tribute to local grandmothers who stood as pillars of strength during the epidemic.
Parallels and Departures: The Keiskamma Tapestry
While the Keiskamma Tapestry may not be woven on a traditional loom, its name deliberately invites us to draw parallels and contrasts with the Bayeux Tapestry. Believed to have been commissioned by William the Conqueror’s half-brother, the original Bayeux Tapestry is shrouded in mystery as an artifact. In contrast, the Keiskamma artists engage in a different narrative—a history crafted by the people, for the people. Their unique stitching technique parallels the Anglo-Saxon nuns of the Bayeux Tapestry, resonating through stem-stitch techniques used to inscribe their names across every meter of their creation.
Reclaiming History: A Testimony to Everyday Lives
Eastern Cape performance poet Lelethu ‘PoeticSoul’ Mahambehlala, collaborator in the aBantu Development Agency’s History Re:imagined project, encapsulates the essence: “History is not just what we see in the news, but it’s our everyday lives.” In an unparalleled act of artistic creation, the women of Keiskamma reclaim their place in history, stitching names and stories that resonate with the tapestry of humanity.