Creative Times & Living testimonies (1): Keiskamma artists on life and work, and the COVID-19 Tapestry of Resilience

AiW note: Our posts, running over 5 days this week, introduce the Keiskamma COVID-19 Resilience Tapestry through the place, the people – its makers – and their history. The ambitious tapestry, responding to the pandemic, is being made by the Keiskamma Art Project, in the rural hamlet of Hamburg, South Africa.

Yesterday’s post set the stage with the landscapes, history, and context for the epic endeavour that is the making of the Keiskamma COVID-19 Resilience Tapestry, currently underway. Today marks the first of three “meetings” posts from the artists, Nomfuneko Bopani, Nkosazana Veronica Betani, Cebo Mvubu and Siyabonga Maswana. They share stories behind Keiskamma and offer some of their Words on the Times, an AiW Q&A set initiated in the early lockdown measures of the pandemic, ongoing now to connect up our communities around our common interests. On Friday, the series will conclude with a look-in to the creative practices and critical responses of the making of the Keiskamma COVID-19 Resilience Tapestry itself, in its evolving, unfolding processes, and 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. 

Nomfuneko and Veronica work as seamstresses at the Keiskamma Art Project. They shared their stories with us and even went further to share their immediate impressions of the start of the lockdown in South Africa as they were adjusting to the additional challenges brought about by Covid-19.

NOMFUNEKO BOPANI

Nomfuneko Bopani

My name is Nomfuneko Bopani, better known as Dlamini (my marriage clan name). I was born and bred here at Hamburg. I am a widow, mother of five and grandmother to nine. I attended school at Hamburg primary school but left school after passing my standard four due to financial challenges. When I was at school I excelled in hand work. Before I joined Keiskamma, I worked at Hamburg Hotel, where I was doing laundry. After that I worked at Kruel in East London as a seamstress. My last job before here was at Mthonjeni Arts, where I worked as a seamstress again. In 2015 I joined Keiskamma Trust as a seamstress. I am so happy to be here. My dream is to have my own business where I can sew all designs, because I do have that skill, my only challenge is capital. 

Covid-19 has become an illuminator in South Africa particularly, highlighting so many challenges already affecting rural communities. Nomfuneko was particularly struck by the change brought about due to the South African government’s decision to ban alcohol during lockdown, an attempt to decrease accidents and violence related to alcohol that account for the largest burden on healthcare facilities, which needed to be freed up to deal with Covid-19.

What I have learnt from Covid 19 lockdown is the goodness of staying people free from alcohol. My son gained weight, and he made a beautiful vegetable garden. We are always so fearful for our family members, but we trust in God. I wish the government had waited for the cure before lifting the alcohol ban, because people will be uncontrollable now that they gone back to alcohol.

VERONICA BETANI

Veronica Betani

My name is Nkosazana Veronica Betani, born in East London. I grew up in King Williamstown in a village known as Tyata. I did my primary at Tyata Primary School, my secondary at Dondashe Secondary School, but I dropped midway because of financial problems. I’m a mother of three, granny of five, and I’m a divorcee. In 1980 I worked at Dimbaza as a seamstress for 6 years, in 1994 I worked as a domestic worker here in Hamburg at the Leach family. I joined Keiskamma in 1999 as an embroiderer/seamstress and I got involved with many of Keiskamma’s works and exhibitions. These include: The Keiskamma Tapestry, the Cream Tapestry, the Keiskamma Democracy Tapestry, the Keiskamma Altarpiece in 2005. Exhibitions, workshops and collaborations have taken me to East London, Grahamstown/Makhanda, Cape Town, Hermanus, Botswana, London, Germany and Mauritius. I am a person who is used to forgetting about myself when it comes to helping others.

I am dreaming of sharing skills that I have to the growing youth in my village and abroad, skills like print-making, sewing, embroidery, appliqué, the list is endless.

For Veronica, her experience was quite different, due to the anxiety she carries around her health. Regulations not being followed to protect health workers was at the forefront of news in South Africa in the first stages of lockdown, leading to strikes for better protective gear and better safety measures, something Veronica experienced first-hand.

When the lockdown was announced it was a confusing time. As time goes on I get more confused because of this COVID-19. 2020 is to me another year of depression and anxiety. It makes me feel nervous. Last week I went to my local hospital to fetch my treatment as I’m living with epilepsy. I didn’t get treatment because the staff there were not working but toyi-toyi-ing for some uniform to protect themselves from COVID-19. I went home with a heartbreak not knowing what to do. As I am talking I don’t have my monthly treatment.

Although the Keiskamma Art Project is predominantly a women’s project, Cebo Mvubu heads up the team in production, and Siyabonga Maswana, the second special man in the team, is one of Keiskamma’s lead artists. Cebo chose an unusual path for a young man in his area, learning embroidery at first from the older women in his village, Bodium, at the very start of the Keiskamma Art Project. 

CEBO MVUBU

Cebo Mvubu

I was born in 1981. I grew up in the village of Bodium, on the road to the coastal town of Hamburg, where there was no art to spark my creativity. I enjoyed drawing biology diagrams and I was paid some money to do so by less skilled classmates. My turning point was when I joined Keiskamma Art Project in 2001 and I have learnt not only embroidery but drawing techniques and printmaking. With the help of Keiskamma, in 2003 I went to Walter Sisulu University to do a diploma in Fine Art. When I graduated, I came back to work in Keiskamma Art project. I was more involved in the major works of Keiskamma and I also exhibited as a solo artist. Now I am a production manager in Keiskamma Art Project and an artist. I was so privileged to travel to many countries like Germany, France, England, Botswana, Mauritius and around South Africa. One of my future plans or dreams is to have a solo exhibition in one of the galleries I visited in Europe.

Cebo opened a window on some of the stigma and fear arising at the start of the pandemic.

Last week Friday I received a call from Port Elizabeth. One of my family members was admitted in hospital. Afternoon on Saturday I received a call saying she is passed away. It was sad because she was admitted on Friday then on Saturday she died. I was planning to attend the funeral so I asked them to send the death certificate because it is not easy to travel to PE without a permit. This reminds me of a dom pass. Then they said they are still waiting for the results. Later they confirmed she died of coronavirus. My biological sister and brother were there. So there was a car from the department of health that was driving around asking everybody who was in the funeral, they must go for a test and be prepared for quarantine. I met someone last week who was coming from PE He asked me if I was in the funeral because he knew everything. I am just thinking now that if I was in PE, I was not going to be accepted in my village.

SIYA MASWANA

Siyabonga Maswana is leading the making of the Covid-19 resilience tapestry. His love of poetry is serving him well in the new work. Siya’s path to embroidery was influenced by meeting Cebo.

Siya Maswana

Name – Siya Maswana. I was born on the 08/10/1983 in Port Elizabeth (Livingstone hospital). Due to the apartheid regime my parents had to move to Mdantsane where I grew up and took my studies from grade (R) to grade 12. I’m the 1st born from my Mom with two brothers and a sister, also with two older brothers separately from my Dad. I was curious at school and I was involved in many sports. I also took handwork classes in 2005-06. It’s when I started be in love with art (we call it handwork back then).

In high school I became a good reader, writer of poems, and story-telling. It’s when I decided to write my own poems and stories. I formed a stage acting group where I wrote my own story lines and directed but it only took for 2 years and then collapsed. I didn’t give up. Then I formed a music group known as “1st Class”. It became the 1st one in Mdantsane to perform with the well-known “Asanda and the Skulkers” live on stage and I felt so grateful on that day. In 2015 I decided to move to Peddie where I met Cebo Mvubu who introduced me to Keiskamma Art Project. It’s where I’ve learnt some skills on wire work, embroidery, painting, ceramics and printing (linocut). Through hardworking I was chosen to go to Ghana in 2019 to the workshop funded by University of Brighton about turning our rubbish into Art. I have also been involved in many artworks and I’ve met different artists in SA. My dream is to be a well-known and creative artist in my community. Keiskamma Art Project is situated in Hamburg, in a very dry rural area, but my aim is to build more jobs for my community.

We asked Siya more recently about the effects of Covid-19.

AiW: Can you tell us more about your work? How are you working now during the pandemic that is different from before?
Most of my job depends on commission we get from around and outside the Country but due to the lockdown we stuck in mud, no orders, that means no salaries. At Keiskamma we’ve got more than 50 women working for their families as bread winners but during this time they all suffering cos they earn nothing, only child welfare grant. These women are hardworking embroiderers who work from 9-4 during weekdays and many of them are single parents. Keiskamma artworks also depends on exhibitions where people can see and place orders but dew pandemic we don’t exhibit anymore.

Imagine how hard for a single parent to raise a family of 5 with a child welfare grant, it’s not worth it, but Keiskamma is trying by all means to help the community, but it’s not easy due to financial problems. Keiskamma is a non-government  organisation which depends on donations and sales to pay salaries but since the lockdown our organisation is struggling financially.

AiW: What have you found most supportive and/or heart lifting during this time?
Every employee was given food parcels, that was supportive from Keiskamma.The support we get from our families, friends and customers across the country was the most to give us hope.

AiW: How can other communities like AiW (international) support you?
We would be very happy if some communities can donate to us with anything they can afford. We using fabric materials,wool,sewing machines. We will be very happy to have those. Living in a rural area is the most challenging, no jobs, drought and too much unemployed youth. Thanx to whom it may concern.

If you feel you can support the artists and project in any way:
– please direct your questions or thoughts to michaela@keiskamma.org
– 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 https://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.

Tomorrow through till Thursday, we will continue to meet the makers and explore the stories of the team behind the Keiskamma COVID-19 Resilience Tapestry who are at the heart of the Project. We will hear some more of their Words on the Times – an AiW Q&A subset, initiated at the start of the lockdowns necessitated by the pandemic. The second of our meetings posts, “Connections are Strength”, with Keiskamma artists Nozeti Makhubalo, Saneliswa Maxengana and Nontobeki Peyi can be found here.

Image credits: Keiskamma Trust.

For more archive posts from AiW 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.

3x documentary films about the making of the first and largest Keiskamma Guernica featured in the Guernica Remakings exhibition, curated by Nicola Ashmore: https://africainwords.com/?s=Keiskamma+Guernicas&x=0&y=0

 

You can find more Words on the Times – an AiW Q&A subset, initiated at the start of the lockdowns necessitated by the pandemic – in the blog category.

 



Categories: AiW Series, Visual Art and Artists, Words on the Times

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