ART, TRAVEL: 9 Reasons to visit Keiskamma Art Project’s Retrospective Exhibition | SOUTH AFRICA

Keiskamma Creation Altarpiece in the Women’s Jail at Constitution Hill – pic copyright Anthea Pokroy, Keiskamma Trust

AGENCIES | Jo’Burg – For the first time in its 20-year history, most of the major hand-embroidered tapestries created by the Keiskamma Art Project are being exhibited together in one place: Constitution Hill in Johannesburg.

Carefully packaged and transported from collections and galleries across South Africa and all over the world, thanks to sponsorship from Hollard, these intricate, large-scale artworks form part of a six-month retrospective exhibition at an equally iconic venue.

The exhibition opened over the Heritage Day weekend and can be viewed at Constitution Hill until March 2023.

The Umaf’ Evuka, nje Ngenyanga/Dying and Rising, As the Moon Does exhibition chronicles themes and scenes from our country’s socio-political history and the lived experiences of the women weavers from the small town of Hamburg in the Eastern Cape, creating an unmissable, immersive and at times deeply moving art-viewing experience.

Here are just a few compelling reasons why you should visit this landmark exhibition:

1. It’s the first time most of the major Keiskamma works are together in one place
The major artworks produced by the project can be found in national and international collections, such as Parliament, where the 120m Keiskamma Tapestry – which was on loan from the Standard Bank art collection – was, mercifully, saved from the fire earlier this year. The artworks are also housed in the Unisa and University of Johannesburg collections, among others. Now, 15 out of the project’s 18 major works are all being displayed to full effect in one venue.

Says exhibition curator Pippa Hetherington, “Bringing together these pieces in one space allows us to fully appreciate the techniques, influences and development of the works over the past two decades. We hope this exhibition will help cement the value of the Keiskamma artists and their work in the public imagination and the art world for posterity.”

2. View iconic works such as the Keiskamma Guernica
Among the most recognisable works on show is the weavers’ embroidery-and-appliqué homage to Picasso’s Guernica. Instead of showing scenes from the Spanish Civil War, it is a stark depiction of how HIV/Aids ravaged the Hamburg community.

Another well-known work is the Creation Altarpiece, a stitched and beadwork embroidery inspired by the Lamb of God (Ghent) altarpiece by Hubert and Jan van Eyck, echoing the Flemish artists’ celebration of the connection between human beings and the natural world.

3. It supports rural job creation and skills development
The award-winning Keiskamma Art Project supports communities in the Hamburg area. Since Dr Carol Hofmeyr established the project, some 130 local women have been trained in embroidery so they can earn sustainable livelihoods.

Importantly, says project curator Michaela Howse, the weavers also feel empowered to tell their stories: “Not only does the Keiskamma Art Project provide the vital opportunity for women to earn a dignified living, it also provides a platform and safe space for memories and stories from both Keiskamma Art Project members and the community to emerge. This is a significant part of the process of making a work.

“Art as communal, visual storytelling is an integral part of a community’s healing process and their ability to cohere across generations and cultures. This is especially important in Hamburg, where we are working to change conditions for people who have felt their marginalisation for decades.”

4. It helps preserve oral history and indigenous culture
These striking textile artworks serve to archive the collective memory of rural, mainly isiXhosa-speaking Eastern Cape communities. Many stories stitched into the fabric are traumatic and painful, with others chronicling daily life and culture.

As exhibition, curatorial advisor and co-curator Azu Nwagbogu explains, “This retrospective exhibition foregrounds the traditional oral histories and acts as a loudhailer through which to amplify the stories and experiences by, and for, the people who are otherwise not heard.

5. You can win a Keiskamma creation
For the duration of the exhibition, Hollard is sponsoring a monthly competition whereby a member of the public can win a handcrafted creation by the Keiskamma weavers – your very own piece of Keiskamma art!

Visit the exhibition, take a selfie or a video with one of the artworks, and post it on social media with the hashtag #HollardKeiskamma, tagging @HollardInsurance (Facebook) or @hollardgram (Instagram) and saying why the work resonated with you.

6. Have your SA story told on a tapestry
Hollard is also commissioning a new tapestry from the Keiskamma Art Project and is inviting public members to submit ideas for the uniquely South African stories they would like to see told on this embroidered artwork. Email your ideas to Keiskamma@hollard.co.za before 31 January 2023.

7. It shows how business can join hands with the arts
Mounting large-scale, world-class exhibitions is a costly exercise. This exhibition shows how, with corporate support, world-class art can be made accessible to South Africans.

Insurer Hollard sponsored the packing and transportation of the artworks to the venue from locales around the world, using custom-made crates shipped in from the United States.

Says Heidi Brauer, Hollard’s group brand executive, “We felt that the stories of the Keiskamma artists were so important and so resonant that we just had to find a way to enable this wonderful initiative to happen. We’re proud to have played a small part in allowing these extraordinary works to be shown in context in one magnificent space.

“The story of the courageous women of Hamburg is a lesson to all of us in South Africa, and their empowerment-through-art model resonates deeply with Hollard’s purpose of enabling more people and more communities to secure better futures.”

8. It gives you an excellent excuse to visit Constitution Hill
Constitution Hill is a living museum that tells the story of South Africa’s journey to constitutional democracy. Steeped in history, this symbolic site provides the ideal gallery setting for a retrospective exhibition that tracks the country’s history through the eyes of the Hamburg weavers.

Says Constitution Hill CEO Dawn Robertson, “Hosting the exhibition at Con Hill holds special significance because audiences will gain a multi-faceted look at the narratives that have brought us to this point as a country. These artists exemplify our search for collective healing and understanding by sharing our stories and discovering our common humanity.”

Keiskamma Democracy Tapestry in the Women’s Jail at Constitution Hill – pic copyright Anthea Pokroy, Keiskamma Trust

9. Visiting the exhibition will directly benefit the Keiskamma weavers
If you book to experience the Umaf’ Evuka, nje Ngenyanga/Dying and Rising, As the Moon Does exhibition through Webtickets or at the visitors’ centre, a portion of your ticket fee will go directly to supporting the Keiskamma Art Project. There are special rates for children and pensioners.

Not only that, but your ticket will also give you access to explore the entire Constitution Hill precinct at leisure. Please note that the Keiskamma exhibition stretches across several museum spaces in the Women’s Jail and Number Four.

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