Stitches that heal body and soul: the Keiskamma Tapestry exhibition at Constitution Hill 2022

Umaf’ evuka, nje ngenyanga /Dying and Rising as the Moon Does 

This is the title of the exhibition of tapestries made by the artists’ collective: Keiskamma Art Project, currently displayed at Constitution Hill. Constitution Hill is a site of contradiction. It has a painful past where men and women were imprisoned: a few were criminals, many were liberation leaders and political activists, and the majority were ordinary people whose only “crime” was not carrying the correct “passbook”. Given this dark past, it was a brave decision by the Constitutional Court to choose this site to locate the new Court back in 1996.  The shift from the brutality of a prison space (particularly the notorious men’s jail – Number 4 and Number 5) to the symbol of a new democratic era, provides a resonant and powerful context for this exhibition of tapestries many of which speak about a journey from collective suffering and hardship, through resilience, to hope and regeneration. 

Collective healing through embroidery

A life can be saved medically, but what makes it a life worth living? Life also requires meaning. … Health and art must be included in the lives we imagine worth living. It is clear … what an integrated journey art and health have become, a joint struggle for quality of life. Art emerges as the mouthpiece of the health and strength of a community.   

This text is from a panel in a cell/room in the men’s jail, a room which includes material providing a background history and context to the Keiskamma project. It embodies the ethos of the founder of the project, Carol Hofmeyr, a medical doctor and a fine artist. In  2000, devastated by the poverty, unemployment, and impact of HIV/AIDs on the already impoverished community in the small eastern coastal Cape village of Hamburg, Carol, who had recently moved there, started teaching skills of embroidery to older women. She also opened the first treatment and hospice centre for HIV/AIDs sufferers. 

From these humble beginnings an internationally recognized art collective now provides employment for 140 women and 2 men.  The project has in turn attracted people from all over the world to Hamburg and opened an extraordinary 2-way channel of reciprocity, communication, learning and skills development. Technical and creative skills like weaving, embroidery, stump work (raised embroidery), beading, felt-making, blanket stitching, applique, photography and wirework have grown and, in addition to the economic upliftment and employment opportunities, the artists’ collective has, as importantly, given a voice to art makers and an impoverished community. Carol’s vision of “collective healing” speaks loudly in these embroidered art works. 

Speaking to two pandemics

In the “first” exhibition room of “Number 4”, are 2 large-scale works made in response to two devastating pandemics: the Keiskamma Altarpiece made in 2005 at the height of the HIV/AIDs pandemic and the Covid-19 Resilience Tapestry made over a period of 2 years from mid-2020 during the 2-year lockdown periods. (With thanks to Tracy Witelson for suggesting this as a starting point to access this complex (indeed overwhelming) exhibition. Tracy is running guided tours of the exhibition which runs until the end of March.) For more on inter-textual references to  plagues and interventions to overcome them see  https://www.lizatlancaster.co.za/frida-kahlo-in-jozi

Tracy is running guided tours of the exhibition which runs until the end of March.)

Keiskamma Altarpiece with opening panels

Much has been written about the Keiskamma Altarpiece which uses the format of traditional Christian altarpieces with successive layers of opening panels, as do 3 works on exhibition in the women’s jail: the Rose Altarpiece 2006, Marriage of Nolulama and Luthando 2006 and the Creation Altarpiece 2007.  Sadly, the attachment of the Altarpiece to the wall is not stable enough to enable opening and closing of the panels so, until this is secured, only the closed version of the altarpiece can be viewed currently. (As soon as things change, I will update this information here). 

Keiskamma altarpiece 2005 Closed
Keiskamma Altarpiece First opening

COVID-19 Resilience Tapestry

As this is the first time the completed Covid-19 Resilience has been exhibited, little has been written about it. Unlike the folding panels of the altarpiece on the opposite wall (which reveal themes as the panels are opened), Covid-19 Resilience is a 7.5 meter long tapestry which is read from left to right. It evokes a journey through symbolic and seasonal time, of the changing responses to the pandemic and the effects of lockdown.  This format of a ‘linear’ narrative is echoed in three other works on exhibition in the women’s jail: Keiskamma Tapestry 2004, Democracy tapestry 2004, and the Biko tapestry 2014.   

The COVID-19 Resilience tapestry covers a year from late summer through autumn, winter, and spring, emerging into the celebratory arrival of summer with its new growth and abundance, the symbol of a new dawn, a new era.  Centrally placed in the tapestry is a giant tree – evocative of life and protection and referencing the sacred tree in the village of Hamburg. From murky grey waters at the outbreak of the pandemic, moving through to crystal-clear blue healing water, a river runs through it: representing the Keiskamma river, a witness to time, and a symbol of continuity and healing. 

COVID-19 Resilience Tapestry, Men’s Jail, Constitution Hill 2022

Because of lockdown, the artists had to work in isolation. Starting with individual drawings made on paper, one of the artists translated these drawings to drawings on material, to be embroidered and added to the hessian canvas. 

Photo courtesy of Africa In Words 

Haiku – nature poems

In addition, Marguerite Poland was asked to write some poetry to be incorporated into the tapestry.  Marguerite Poland was born in the Eastern Cape, has written several novels about the Eastern Cape, and has researched Nguni cattle and their different markings. She has been closely connected with the Keiskamma Art Project since its inception. Poland’s short verses are written in the form of haiku, a poetic structure which is Japanese in origin and speaks about the natural world.  In few words, Poland’s powerful haikus enrich the visual images which embody the journey through the pandemic and the community’s emotional responses.  Fear of the unknown, transitions into images showing the devastating impact of enforced isolation, to a time of deep mourning with the reality of deaths and funerals, through to the hope of spring with new beginnings, the final triumphal arrival of a vaccine, of rain, of warmer summer weather – a new era of abundance and regeneration.  This is the ultimate resilience referred to in the title of the work.  

At the top left the main themes of the panel are encoded in the images of the 19th prophetess Nongqawuse (who in 1856 promised a purified new world for the Xhosa people if all their cattle were killed), Ramaphosa, as President, addressing the nation at the outset of the COVID-19 pandemic, and the Intsikizi (ground hornbill) a powerful symbol of rebirth and renewal in Xhosa cosmology. (This bird is the subject of an entire tapestry series in an adjacent exhibition space in the men’s jail).   

The main themes of the panel

The owl, symbol of death, encapsulates feelings of fear, foreboding and panic around the unknown effects of the virus:  Silent hunter/flight of the owl unheard/until it strikes. 

A woman is depicted rowing alone in a boat on the river, isolated and cut off: Underworld of drought/even the shadow of the trees/have died. 

Children are separated from their friends: No one to play with/a small boy whacking a/tree with a stick 

Birds in Xhosa cosmology

Throughout the tapestry, the emotional responses, the upheaval of community life, and the devastation of the pandemic are represented as inseparable from the natural environment including plants, domestic animals (especially cattle), birds and the rhythm of the seasons. Birds particularly have a prominent place in Xhosa cosmology and symbolism.  Close observation of different bird species allows for immediate identification of the birds represented in the tapestry, which adds a further layer of significance to this dense work.  In the image below, adjacent to the representation of the virus, health care workers are shown holding up signs saying “More PPE” and “Management sold us out“.  Nearby are large images of of the forked-tailed drongo and the hamerkop. The former follows the hoopoe and when it pecks grubs from the ground, the drongo swoops down and steals the hoopoe’s hard-earned meal. The hamerkop is seen as vain and self-interested – seeming to always look at its reflection in the water. 

A detail shows health care workers holding up signs saying “More PPE” and “Management sold us out“. The drongo and the Hhamerkop, symbols of self-interest, amplify the theme of corruption.
Umke namangabangaba olwandle He has been taken by seabirds (meaning he has disappeared to a place beyond imagining).

Cuban doctors arrive, movement in public spaces is policed, food parcels provide relief, people are dying away from home and it is a time of deep grief and mourning.  The emerald spotted wood dove’s liquid notes, mournfully descending, carry this grief: My mother is dead/My father is dead/My heart is falling over. 

But gradually there are signs of hope:

The harvest is in sight, the cattle are healthy, recovery is possible, but there is still looting and unrest.  The stars are falling/ the horns of the cattle/ harness the light.   Two men hold a sign saying “‘SAY NO TO COVID 19 CORRUPTION MISUSE OF COVID FUNDS”  and another holds a sign aloft: “SAY NO TO CORRUPTION TO COVID 19”

And the new season of growth and rebirth arrives with the beginning of summer. The darkness has lifted, schools have reopened, the children can play together again.  The vaccine is beginning to control this monstrous virus. The rich yellows and oranges of the bokmakeries and the orange-throated longclaw signal that summer is here – a time of abundance.

Blood-breach
from the bones of Msintsi-
the birth of the year.

The Msintsi is the Coral tree (Erythrina). The haiku lies amid splashes of vivid scarlet.

And more colour imagery evokes the unfolding of the new season of plenty: 

White as buttermilk
Rust red mottled lark’s egg, horns of
the spreading tree

The fear and dread is lifting and the richness of community has returned. 

The pumpkins are ripe!/ Season for visiting friends/for gossip and beer

Hope is restored. We have proved resilient. Lakuba lumkile uvalo nemishologa yamkile – when anguish has died and the omens have fled.

Empowerment through digital connection 

Over the last two decades, the Keiskamma Art Project has proved the power of community and collaboration. The stringent lockdown restrictions on gatherings, travel and socializing, meant the artists could not meet and workshop together.  Gradually artists began to harness cell phone data to communicate across distance via What’s App. Photos could be shared, ideas and thoughts exchanged across great distances.  The resulting empowerment allowed different ways of connecting and gave new meaning to the term resilience and regeneration.  

This exhibition runs until 23rd March 2023 and will probably require a 2nd visit. A second visit is heavy on the pocket, but so worth it to experience these glorious and moving works first hand. 

For more information on the Keiskamma Art Project, see the excellent book by this name by Brenda Schmahmann.  

For more on a new Keiskamma project 

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