JOHANNESBURG, South Africa — Umaf’evuka, nje ngenyanga, dying and rising, as the moon does is a massive retrospective honoring and celebrating the politically astute and aesthetically stunning tapestries made by mainly Xhosa women weavers who live in Hamburg, South Africa — a town at the mouth of the Keiskamma River. The Keiskamma Art Project has been a thriving cultural force on the Eastern Cape since its inception in 2000. This exhibition is the first to provide a comprehensive overview of the project’s history and its iconic tapestries.
Constitution Hill, the exhibition’s Johannesburg venue, is the former prison complex where Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, Nelson Mandela, Oliver Tambo, and Mahatma Gandhi were once incarcerated. The institution has served as a living repository of South African history since its transformation into a museum in 2004. The maze-like space is a blend of original carceral architecture and contemporary renovations. Wandering through the show, which stretches across the sprawling complex, the Keiskamma tapestries parallel the histories of the space remarkably.
Complex motifs are elaborately stitched throughout each tapestry: ecological beauty; loss and survival; South African histories; politics and resistance. “Keiskamma Guernica” (2010) takes up a large concrete wall in one room of the former men’s prison. The tapestry is a creative expression of mourning and resilience made from a blend of appliqué and embroidery with felt, rusted wire, metal tags, and beaded red ribbons, as well as repurposed textiles. Drawing from the imagery and symbolism of Pablo Picasso’s “Guernica” (1937), Keiskamma’s take on the mammoth Modernist painting represents devastation and community perseverance due to the impact of HIV/AIDS on Hamburg. In a formidable gesture of transmutation, blankets and old clothes used by dying patients at the city’s hospice are repurposed in an artwork that commemorates deceased loved ones and their communities. Rural South Africans suffering with AIDS-related complications were met with increased challenges in 2009 when the government made it illegal for local, non-governmental clinics to circulate antiretrovirals to their patients. Artist and doctor Carol Hofmeyr (co-founder and current trustee of the Keiskamma Art Project) was forced to stop providing life-saving medications to HIV-positive people in Hamburg, which she had been doing for nearly a decade.
Part of a series of tapestries on view in the women’s prison, its own separate building a short walk from the men’s, “Biko Tapestry” (2014) conjures Apartheid-era radical activism and its legacies. A combination of embroidery, appliqué, and South African dyed cotton fabric called isishweshwe, the tapestry is a tribute to the leftist icon and father of the Black Consciousness Movement, Steve Biko. The Keiskamma artists were inspired by Biko’s incisive writing, and created the tapestry with the intention of consciousness raising through visual storytelling, especially for South African youth.
Along with histories of mourning and perseverance, the Keiskamma artists are profoundly aware of the sacred relationship between humans and nature. Botanical and wildlife iconography flourish throughout the tapestries. Hamburg itself is an ideal destination for birdwatchers. One such bird, Intsikizi — the isiXhosa term for the South African ground hornbill — is historically sacred in Xhosa culture. The red and black bird is foregrounded in one tapestry, and various species of colorful birds abound in other tapestries, especially the six “Intsikizi Tapestries,” stitched in deep reverence for the ecological world and its serene abundance. The Keiskamma artists cite The Unicorn Tapestries, the medieval tapestries at the Cloisters Museum branch of the Met in New York, as a visual inspiration for the “Intsikizi Tapestries.”
Viewers can (and really must) spend hours sauntering throughout the Keiskamma retrospective and reading about the countless patterns, designs, and symbols throughout the tapestries. The Xhosa women who create these works, such as Nozeti Makhubalo and Veronica Betani, both longstanding active members of the artist collective, experiment with needlework in such a way that narrates pertinent histories, moments of communal grief and vitality. The tapestries unravel the sorrow and beauty stitched into the world around us.
Umaf’evuka, nje ngenyanga, dying and rising, as the moon does continues at Constitution Hill (11 Kotze St, Braamfontein, Johannesburg, South Africa) through March 24. The exhibition was curated by Azu Nwagbogu, Pippa Hetherington, and Cathy Stanley.
Special thank you to Nozeti Makhubalo, Veronica Betani, and Alex Fialho for their intellectual and creative labor that made this review possible.