The tapestries revealing hidden history

In their work, the Keiskamma artists consider all kinds of local experience, from climate change to HIV/Aids, and the struggle for racial justice and gender equality. Pride of place in the exhibition goes to the first chapter in the Keiskamma Art Project’s story: the Keiskamma Tapestry. Completed in 2003, it’s a landmark in community embroidery: one that preserves 300 years of Eastern Cape history across 120m of red-ochre hessian.

At the start we see San bushmen, whose silhouettes echo their depiction in their own ancient rock art. Everyday rural life and Xhosa culture is remembered alongside scenes of colonial invasion and atrocities committed by Dutch and British soldiers in the 18th and 19th Century Frontier Wars. Further down the tapestry, Nelson Mandela is burning his passbook in protest of the Sharpeville Massacre – sewn defiantly next to the “architect of apartheid” Hendrink Verwoerd. Images of torture and resistance, including the Soweto uprising, appear before we see hand-stitched ballot boxes from South Africa’s first democratic election in 1994.

“When we look back we’re sort of reinstating our history for the world to see who we are,” long-established Keiskamma artist Veronica Betani tells BBC Culture.

“The history of Hamburg is also the history of South Africa, with all of its unresolved colonial legacies and difficult epidemic histories,” says the exhibition’s co-curator Azu Nwagbogu. “The resilience and will of the people have been crafted into tapestries.”

The power of the process

When people come together to sew local history, they create a space that can be just as important as the end result. The Keiskamma Art Project began when free embroidery training workshops were opened by the Keiskamma Trust in 2002. Women were paid for everything sewn, numbers grew, and the Keiskamma studio became a hub for studying local history, sharing memories, and weaving those stories into tapestries. Today, Keiskamma arts are a vital source of local income, but visual artist and educator Nobukho Nqaba explains that Keiskamma artists also “share, stitch and write personal and collective trauma – experienced by a majority of black South Africans – as a way of healing.” 

“We lost so many colleagues on the road,” says Betani. “Some years back I thought I was not going to make it because I was diagnosed with depression, and then epilepsy. After that, I found out that I’m HIV positive. All those things made me think ‘this is the end of the road’ but it was not. So, I’m the one rising and dying as the moon does.” The success of the Keiskamma Tapestry meant Betani and her colleagues embarked on other commemorative works that also feature in the retrospective, including the Keiskamma Guernica and the Keiskamma Altarpiece. Both reflect on the impact of HIV/Aids in Hamburg. Blankets from the Keiskamma Treatment Centre are appliquéd into the Guernica tapestry, while the Altarpiece sanctifies local grandmothers who cared for their families during the epidemic.

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