The Keiskamma Tapestry

Continuing on with our study of tapestries, at our virtual meeting in April, member Catherine Nicholls presented her research related to the Keiskamma Tapestry. What follows is the result of “many rabbit holes” that she perused and what she discovered.

The Tapestry is a product of the Keiskamma Arts Project of the Keiskamma Trust of South Africa, a non-profit organization dedicated to the care of the communities that lie along the Keiskamma River in the Eastern Cape region of South Africa. 

Indigenous to the area are the Xhosa (pronounced kōssa)also called the Red Blanket people, most likely due to the ochre found in the earth. They have survived through cattle herding, fishing, homesteading. Below is a picture of the general area and village.

In 2000 when Dr. Carol Hoffmeyr and her husband retired to Hamburg from Johannesburg, she found a community of impoverished women who couldn’t feed their children, a community suffering from the ravages of untreated HIV and AIDS, lack of employment opportunities, and affordable medical treatment.  As a medical doctor, Dr. Hoffmeyr decided to help. Having also studied embroidery, she hoped that by passing along her knowledge to local women it would, like the Villaneuva Tapestry, offer a skill that was useful and marketable.

Dr. Carol stated the aim of the project was “to use creativity to build confidence and self-esteem, not to make money.”

The project started with early workshops being held in a ruined house. As news spread by word of mouth, the number of women attending the workshops increased and the women started to see their work to provide a bit of income. Their initial sales were of small cushions and handbags, but a single mother, Veronica, had been with the initiative from the start and was able to generate sufficient income to be able to now care for her children and grandchildren.

The project also provided a meeting place and support system for the women, many of whom were widows through HIV AIDS or just being on their own. 

Pictured are two women with ochre coloured hessian working on a portion of the tapestry. The women also spent time planning of the tapestry

Unlike other tapestries, this one was worked in the hands, on the grass, in the floor, wherever the women were able to sit and stitch.  The tapestry which is 394 feet long, was started in March and finished in September.

Dr. Carol was the driving force behind this project, but she was respectful of their culture and tradition.  She would teach a stitch and then step back and let the women run with it.  This was the same with the drawing of the designs.  The women chose the colours, the images, and the stories to tell. 

While the Bayeaux Tapestry tells the story of the conquerors, the Kieskamma Tapestry tells the story of the Xhosa people who were subjugated through colonization and the Xhosa British Frontier Wars that ran for a hundred years to 1876. The tapestry depicts the history of the area from arrival of the 1820 settlers to the release of Nelson Mandela in 1994. By using traditional knowledge, both written and oral history, the women wove a story starting with the land originally filled with wildlife and no humans.

Pictured below is a section of the tapestry showing the land and Xhosa life prior to the arrival of European settlers.

As you view the tapestry you come to sections that depict a dark time when the Xhosa people become decimated.  Having killed their cattle in a  bid to drive the white settlers away, they were left in extreme poverty and begging for work from the white settlers.  This was then followed by apartheid.

This image showing settlers killing the Xhosa.

Here we see the soldiers confiscating the cattle

Troops being carried ashore by the subjugated Xhosa.

The tapestry has travelled worldwide and was purchased by Standard Bank, who has sent it back to the Cape Town Parliament building to be permanently hung for the use of the people thereby financing these women for years to come and provided the much needed stability.

The work was hung in 2011.

It was the first of the current 15 major tapestries of the Keiskamma Art Project and Keiskamma Trust. One of those 15 tapestries is the Keiskamma Altarpiece which was modelled after the famous Isenheim Altarpiece. The Keiskamma Altarpiece, when closed is 4 metres high by 4 metres wide; opened out it stands 4 metres high and 6.8 metres or 22’3” wide as it opens out.  It is made of panels that open and close like an altarpiece and there are 14 different panels in the entire piece.

First unveiled in the Anglican Cathedral in Gramton, South Africa July 2005.  Travelled to England, Canada, throughout the United States and was eventually purchased by a private collector who again gave it back to the community of Hamburg where it hangs in a government building so everyone can see it.

The Keiskamma artists continue to work and raise money to support their community. They have made prototypes of limited-edition tapestry series relating what they value most about democracy; freedom, equality, and human dignity.

Our many thanks to the Keiskamma Trust for providing pictures of the tapestry to us. You may view additional photos in our Portfolio here. The pictures are intricate and may take a moment or two to load.