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Opinion | How will the Parliament fire affect the Keiskamma Art Project retrospective?

By Keiskamma Art Project

Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s state funeral at St George’s Cathedral in Cape Town on 1 January 2022 was watched by millions who mourned his passing, across the world. Tutu’s deep sense of justice, his wisdom and humility, his outspoken intolerance for hypocrisy (particularly that of politicians), his lovely – often irreverent – sense of humour, his delight in life, and his profound capacity for empathy and hope, represented the very best of humanity. He was South Africa’s much-loved moral compass, our ‘national conscience’ in Cyril Ramaphosa’s words, custodian of the fundamental human values that underpin our Constitution. It was Tutu who coined the phrase, ‘the Rainbow Nation’, an elusive ideal we strive for still.

Keiskamma Art Project Archbishop Desmond Tutu
Archbishop Desmond Tutu presented with
a Keiskamma artwork, August 2008

Many of these values are beholden in the magnificent work of the Keiskamma artists’ collective in Hamburg, Eastern Cape – and it is no coincidence that one of the Keiskamma Art Project’s exquisitely embroidered pieces hung in Archibishop Tutu’s prayer room. In 2008, Archbishop Tutu recorded a sermon that was delivered at a service in St. George’s Cathedral, Cape Town, where the Keiskamma Art Project’s Creation Altarpiece, reflecting the essential human need to engage with nature and the natural environment, was exhibited.

Keiskamma Art Project Creation Altarpiece Archbishop Desmond Tutu
Creation Altarpiece, 2007, mixed media (3.8 x 4.6 metres), exhibited at St George’s Cathedral in September 2008

Against this backdrop how shocking it was when, a day after Tutu’s funeral at St George’s, plumes of smoke rose from the nearby Houses of Parliament, home to the original, iconic work of the Keiskamma Artists: the 120-metre ‘Keiskamma Tapestry’, on loan to parliament from Standard Bank, who acquired the piece on its completion in 2004. A mixed media work made from embroidery thread, beadwork, wire, Nguni cowhide and wood, on a hessian substrate, the tapestry takes inspiration from the 11th-century Bayeaux Tapestry in France, depicting the Norman conquest of England in 1066. The ‘Keiskamma Tapestry’ (painstakingly hand-stitched rather than woven on a loom, so the word ‘tapestry’ is something of a misnomer) is 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.

As this collective artwork unfolds, panel by panel (each embroidered panel stitched by one or two women, with contributions from 100 women altogether), it depicts an epic historical sweep. Starting in pre-colonial times, it shows nomadic San and Khoi peoples, known for their deep reverence for the natural world, hunted down and slaughtered by the invading Dutch and British. The complexities of history are manifest in the way the artwork shows Xhosa peoples similarly engaged in violent conflict with first nation groups.

Keiskamma Art Project Creation Altarpiece Archbishop Desmond Tutu
Detail from Keiskamma Tapestry, 2004, mixed media (0.7 x 120 m)

It goes on to document the devastating frontier wars as the European colonists advanced northwards, decimating the cultural traditions, lives and livelihoods of the Xhosa people. This is poignantly symbolised in the artwork by the exquisitely stitched Nguni cattle, at times identified by name, such as ‘Fly in the milk’. The cattle in the work also allude to the risen herds predicted by the Xhosa prophet Nongqawuse after the great cattle killing and famine of 1856-7, resulting in the final devastating defeat of the Xhosa by the British settlers. 

Personal histories merge with the country’s collective history as the Keiskamma artists, each of whom has stitched her name into the piece, depict the deep suffering and human losses experienced by the Hamburg community during the violently oppressive period of apartheid rule and the HIV-Aids pandemic. The panel ends with a vivid celebration of the advent of democracy in 1994, marking a new beginning for a resilient community rising phoenix-like from the ashes, and at last given a voice.

How ironic, then, that this magnificent, largely unwitnessed work, hidden from public view in the corridors of parliament, should have been in jeopardy from a devastating fire in the parliamentary building. It seems a violation of the very values symbolised in the Keiskamma Tapestry and reaffirmed in the many moving tributes paid to Desmond Tutu at his funeral mass a day before. And it makes one realise how little is sacrosanct in South Africa in the third decade of the 21st century.

Keiskamma Art Project Creation Altarpiece Archbishop Desmond Tutu
Detail from Keiskamma Tapestry, 2004, mixed media (0.7 x 120 m)

Death and Resurrection: The Keiskamma restrospective

Indeed, the Keiskamma Art Project’s planned retrospective Death and Resurrection seems ever more important and urgent now. Robin Kirsten, Arts Admininistrator at the Houses of Parliament, has confirmed that the Keiskamma Tapestry is intact, but still needs to undergo professional assessment by a conservator for water and smoke damage that may not be visible to the naked eye. We hope that this immensely significant artwork, so integral to our rich cultural heritage, can take pride of place in the planned retrospective at Constitution Hill. Here the public will be invited, not only to engage with the magnificent artistic output of the Keiskamma artists over the past twenty years, but also to reflect on the core human rights and values, notably the rights of women, these monumental works of art represent.

’This opportunity cannot be missed. People need to see these incredible artworks. They are interwoven in and through our heritage. Exhibiting the artworks, especially in places of historical importance, will allow people of all backgrounds to engage with the remarkable human story of Hamburg as a village, and South Africa as a country.’ 

Rob Brozin, Co-Founder of Nando’s and trustee of the Constitution Hill Trust.

As we enter 2022, we are more passionately determined than ever to bring the retrospective Death and Resurrection to life, and to this end we are pleased to share with you new tapestries available for acquisition in support of the exhibition. 
In October we ran a workshop and have made three prototypes towards a beautiful, limited edition tapestry series to raise funds for the retrospective. The artists, for whom the workshop was also a much-needed source of income, demonstrated in a profound and moving way what it is that they value about our young democracy and what the pillars of our Constitution – equality, freedom and human dignity – mean in their daily lives as women from an impoverished area of the Eastern Cape.

Keiskamma Art Project
Keiskamma artists’ October 2021 workshop, in which the artists translated their personal hopes and visions for South Africa’s future into drawings and illustrations for the ‘Our South Africa’ series

We discussed South Africa’s challenging history and possibilities for the future and the artists translated their personal hopes and visions into drawings and illustrations. The artists then consolidated the drawings into three main compositions. The finished artworks are richly coloured, intricately detailed and beautifully textured tapestries. Together, they make up a symbolic narrative of possibility for a resilient community and, in turn, a resilient country at a critical point in its history. Individually, the tapestries represent an intimate expression of personal hopes and dreams, manifested stitch by stitch.

These unique, hand-embroidered, limited edition 50cm x 50cm tapestries are being sold individually or as a full set of three. You can acquire the tapestries either as an individual art buyer, or through corporate sponsorship.

Keiskamma Art Project Death and Resurrection
Completed prototypes of the ‘Our South Africa’ series

Jonathan Goldberg, our first official corporate sponsor for the retrospective, a leading voice in Labour Law and Broad-Based Black Economic Empowerment, and CEO of Global Business Solutions believes: ‘The Keiskamma project is one of a kind and an example of what we can do in Africa, even in the most impoverished communities. One just needs to take a day to visit the Hamburg community and see what they have created over the years. These works of art are world class and we are privileged to hang them in our boardrooms or foyers. They symbolize what we all fought for in South Africa and we should put our full weight in celebrating these artworks with our country, and in celebration of the 25 years since the signing of our Constitution. This not only exposes these works to the world and South Africa, but deservedly supports the project’s sustainability.’

Find out more about the Keiskamma retrospective Death and Resurrection over here.

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