AiW note: The Keiskamma Art Project, in the rural hamlet of Hamburg, South Africa, is embarking on an ambitious tapestry in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The next five posts will introduce the Keiskamma COVID-19 Resilience Tapestry through the place, the people – its makers – and their history. Beginning with a preface to the journey of this epic endeavour (today), an introduction to the people’s stories behind Keiskamma will follow – tomorrow through Thursday; the series will conclude on Friday, with a look-in to the creative practices and critical responses of the project through the making of the Keiskamma COVID-19 Resilience Tapestry itself, in its evolving, unfolding processes, as it is being made.
The Keiskamma Art Project is part of the greater Keiskamma Trust, a South African not-for-profit organization dedicated to the holistic care of the communities that live in the area alongside the Keiskamma River in the Eastern Cape. The Trust began with a healing vision, to restore hope and dignity to people with very few resources, living at the precipice of change. It was founded in 2000 by artist and doctor, Carol Hofmeyr. Today the Keiskamma Art Project, the flagship of the greater Trust, works to maintain its founder’s vision, providing vital livelihoods through dignified work, while communicating through art, the reality of rural lives affected by both poverty and history.
A long-time supporter and friend of Keiskamma, Marguerite Poland, the esteemed South African author, is collaborating with the predominantly womens’ embroidery group to infuse their art with her poetry. Today, Marguerite sets the stage.
The pasture was rich between thickets of bush, cattle thrived: the land of the Ndlambe Xhosa.
If the winters were cold and dry, the spring was heralded by the arrival of the red-chested cuckoo calling, ‘Phezukomkhono’ – ‘hoe to the shoulder’ – the time for planting. In early summer when rain was frequent, the inkanku-bird predicted abundant milk and umvemve, the wagtail, guarded the new-born calves. The rains and sunshine ensured a yield of maize, pumpkins and sorghum and people eagerly awaited ukuShwama, to celebrate the First Fruits Ceremony, after which the gardens could be harvested: ‘Be cheerful, the pumpkins are ripe!’
There were not only times of plenty. There were also times of drought, flood, disease and death. These, too, were anticipated. Communities lived with the accepted cycle of the seasons, moved back and forth within ancestral lands in search of better grazing, surer water, richer soil. At the heart of the culture were the cattle: the economic and spiritual centre of well-being.
And then the colonists came.
In 1809, despite a claim that he had paid 800 head of cattle to retain his people’s right to their traditional grazing – the horn shapes of which he could enumerate as evidence – Ndlambe and his people were forced to retreat east of the Great Fish River which was summarily declared the border between ‘colonial’ and ‘indigenous’ lands. It was while in retreat that 23,000 cattle of the Ndlambe were captured by the military in the dense bush flanking the Keiskamma River at the mouth of which the hamlet of Hamburg now stands. Without their cattle the people believed they had been ‘left to perish’.
In 1854 a bull, imported from Europe, brought with it an unknown and highly-infectious disease: lung-sickness. It spread rapidly throughout the country. Cattle died in their thousands. Among the most significant reactions to this event and to the ongoing conflict in contested territory, was a millenarian response which led to the Cattle Killing tragedy of 1856-1858 which decimated not only the cattle of the Xhosa but the people themselves. Those events have been preserved by the artists of Hamburg – among them, descendants of the tragedy – in the monumental tapestry depicting Xhosa history which hangs in the South African Parliament today.
And now, in 2020, catastrophe has struck again.
This time an insidious and undiscriminating plunderer has swept the entire world: Covid19. The response of the artists of the Keiskamma Art Project has been to record, once again, in images and words drawn from their lore, cultural heritage and landscape, a response to a scourge which so profoundly affects their lives.
Like many of the Keiskamma Art Project’s previous works, all of which have been powerful representations of significant events, the creation of this tapestry will be symbolic of this catastrophic pandemic.
To imagine, to create, to record, especially in moments of uncertainty and fear, is an act of faith, not defeat. And the hope of regeneration is represented in the proposed tapestry by the outstretched branches of the ancient umkhiwane fig tree of Hamburg, witness with varied creatures through many seasons over countless years, to the lives of generations of people who have sheltered in its shade.
Marguerite Poland’s writing – poetic, sensitively-layered and lucid – has won several prestigious awards. A meticulous researcher, much of her work reflects her interests in African oral traditions and her keen understanding and appreciation of the South African landscape, its fauna and flora, as well as its peoples. Poland is a keen student of indigenous languages, with a profound appreciation of both Xhosa and Zulu.
Poland: In 2003, at the time when the artists of the Keiskamma Art Project were creating the magnificent tapestry of the history of the amaXhosa which is hung in the South African Parliament, I was approached by the founder and director, Dr Carol Baker Hofmeyr, for information on the varied colour patterns of indigenous Nguni cattle which were my particular field of interest. Since then I have had the privilege of working with the Project on two of their initiatives. I contributed research material describing bird lore for the creation of the Intsikizi tapestries in 2015. The Project also created four narrative tapestries illustrating my recent novel, A Sin of Omission in 2019. It is an honour to be associated with a work which will empower and enable people both to express their talent and assist them in times of economic stress. The tapestry, which reflects on the history, language and culture of their community in response to the devastating effect of this worldwide pandemic, will be a legacy of great significance.
The four Keiskamma narrative tapestries, exquisite works creatively reinterpreting and inspired by the events of Poland’s novel, depict key events in the life of Reverend Stephen Malusi Mzamane, a Xhosa boy who, as a young man, was sent to England in 1869 to train as a missionary in Canterbury. On his return to South Africa, Mzamane was relegated to a dilapidated mission near rural Fort Beaufort, where he confronted the prejudices of colonial society as well as discrimination from within the church.
Each piece was made by two designers and two embroiderers, under the guidance of artist and art director Cebo Mvubu.
- “Finding Stephen” – depicts the devastation of the Cattle Killings of 1856 and 1857, as a missionary finds the starving nine-year-old Stephen.
- “Canterbury” – shows the Missionary college where Mzamane was sent to prepare for the priesthood.
- “Stephen Arriving at Holy Trinity Mission” – depicts Mzamane seeing the isolated church that is to become his parish for the first time.
- “The Maypole Dance” – illustrates the church as the Keiskamma artists saw it when they visited Nondyola in August 2019, part of a research trip which included a visit to the site of the former Anglican Institution in Makhanda where Mzamane was first educated.
If you feel you can support the artists and project in any way:
– please direct your questions or thoughts to email@example.com –
– or, you can donate directly to the crowdfunding campaign which has been set up to raise money for the Covid-resilience tapestry specifically, the best means of providing an income to the artists and embroiderers at this time.
Please visit www.backabuddy.co.za/our-daily-bread and leave your details so we can be in touch with you. No donation is too big or too small and goes directly towards artists’ livelihoods.
As part of our week-long Keiskamma Covid-resilience Tapestry series this week, tomorrow through till Thursday will explore the stories of the people behind the tapestry and at the heart of the Project, hearing some of their Words on the Times – an AiW Q&A subset, initiated at the start of the lockdowns necessitated by the pandemic. You can read the first of three “meetings” posts from the artists Nomfuneko Bopani, Nkosazana Veronica Betani, Cebo Nvubu and Siyabonga Maswana here.
Image credits: Keiskamma Trust and Carol Baker.
For more on the Keiskamma Art Project’s range and for an insight into the making of another of their series of tapestry works, click the image below to watch 3 short documentary films shared with us in 2017 by Guernica Remakings (Nicola Ashmore, University of Brighton), about the Keiskamma Art Project’s tapestry remakings of Picasso’s iconic painting, Guernica, and through which the makers of the five Keiskamma Guernicas voice their role in the making process.
Each of the Keiskamma Guernicas – compassionate, hopeful, politically resistant, made between 2010 and 2017 – tell the story of the impact of HIV/AIDS and challenge the ineffectual response of consecutive South African governments to its crisis in the Peddie region of the Eastern Cape.
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