Retrospective exhibition celebrating two decades of Keiskamma Art Project

24TH SEPTEMBER 2022 – 23RD MARCH 2023

Cultural Statement
Azu Nwagbogu, Pippa Hetherington and Cathy Stanley
September 2022

This retrospective exhibition of the Keiskamma Art Project, Umaf’ evuka, nje ngenyanga / Dying and rising, as the moon does, has been years in the making. It is particularly meaningful to see it realised in the historic context of South Africa’s Constitution Hill – a living museum that tells stories of our country’s complex, painful past, the enormous sacrifices made by people of colour in their fight for equality before the law, and our collective hopes for the future. The museum is an inclusive and humanitarian environment, a safe space for people from diverse communities to come together and engage in difficult – but necessary – conversations around South Africa’s colonial, apartheid and more recent history: the years since the advent of democracy in 1994.

Umaf’ evuka, nje ngenyanga – a title evoking the spiritual philosophy of founder Carol Hofmeyr, evident in her piece A New Earth – marks two decades of art-making by the Keiskamma Art Project. The exhibition portrays a rural community’s constant oscillation between despair and hope, suffering and regeneration, hardship and triumph, over the years between AIDS denialism, with its enormous human toll, and the Covid-19 pandemic. Personal and communal threads of experience are intertwined to create richly significant and poignant storytelling through stitching.

Developed in productive exchanges with many other artists from around the world, the artists’ extraordinary skills have provided a means of healing and sustenance through challenging times. The historic site of Constitution Hill is a fitting place for a body of artwork that encourages empathy, respect and mutual understanding. The South African Bill of Rights, which enshrines every citizen’s right to human dignity, equality and freedom, was signed into law just four years before the Keiskamma Art Project came into being. Aptly, the Women’s Charter Tapestries on view in the atrium overtly reference women’s struggle for recognition of their human rights, reminding us of the brave women of all races who marched to the Union Buildings in 1956 in protest against the pass laws, and the continued denial of women’s rights under customary law in many parts of
South Africa. Their critique is unflinchingly honest, a proud assertion of identity, self-worth and freedom of expression.

The iconic Keiskamma Tapestry, which almost burned to ashes in the fire in the Houses of Parliament earlier this year, is a similarly powerful expression of art activism. Challenging colonial and apartheid representations of history, the 120-metre long tapestry, a response to the Bayeaux Tapestry in France, gives voice to a community silenced, subjugated and dispossessed for hundreds of years. This, and many of the other iconic, communally-created artworks, are embodiments of the community’s lived experience and intangible heritage – passed down through oral tradition – painstakingly threaded into materiality.

The artists’ celebration of their cultural heritage, history and cosmogony, is not inward-looking, however. Their art practice is also a means of reaching out to a wider, interdependent, multicultural world. Often engaging with seminal European artworks, their monumental pieces draw attention to our shared humanity, while also revealing omissions in the narrative of Western art history. By showcasing the works of the Keiskamma Art Project we acknowledge the contribution of art from the African continent, and celebrate the remarkable body of work the Keiskamma Art Project has generated over two decades. This has been achieved in spite of socio-political vicissitudes that have eroded aspects of the South African and international cultural landscape in that time.

Now, for the first time, fifteen of seventeen major Keiskamma Art Project tapestries (the others will be video-graphically reproduced) can be viewed under one roof. Presented together, the works illuminate the artists’ overarching creative vision and their recurrent thematic concerns. These may be grounded in local realities, but speak to the broader, urgent issues of our time, such as the struggle for racial and gender equality, the widening wealth gap, and the disproportionate impact of disease and climate change on poor communities – inseparable from the legacy of imperialism. Against the backdrop of the international climate movement, and increasing global awareness of racial and gender discrimination driven by Black Lives Matter and Me Too, this retrospective could not have come at a better time.

We invite visitors to explore the artworks on view, and to appreciate their extraordinary physical presence. It may seem absurd to expect art to heal, but close engagement may leave many with the sense of a transfiguring, empathic shift. These beautiful objects are charged with history and communal feeling.