Keiskamma Art Project - VM - Meryl Doney
by Meryl Doney
A young doctor arrives in an Eastern Cape village in South Africa. She is appalled at the extreme poverty and deprivation all around her. The HIV/AIDS pandemic is raging, affecting both men and women, and there is very limited medical provision. Many are dying. What does doctor and fine artist Dr Carol Hofmeyr do? She encourages a small group of women to sew. Having studied embroidery herself, she believes that passing on that knowledge to local women will help empower them. She invites artists she knows from all over the world to come and teach collage and embroidery. She sees it as offering a way for the women to make a living, but also to have a voice against injustice and neglect. The first workshops are held in an old, ruined house with just a few takers. Soon increasing numbers hear about the project through word of mouth and together they form the Keiskamma Art Project.
The group chose to base their designs on well-known artworks from the western canon. This, in their terms, validated their own stories to the world – stories of people who would otherwise not be heard. They chose works like the Bayeux Tapestry (11th c.), The Isenheim Altarpiece (early 16th c.) and Picasso’s famous anti-war painting, Guernica (1937).
For their Guernica the Keiskamma artists reinterpreted Picasso’s work using images from their own world. The central horse is replaced by a dying cow, a more traditional Xhosa symbol. The many human faces which form the background were produced by local women and children as they studied Picasso’s weeping women. Beneath the bull on the left is an African mother with her child. Members of the art collective are pictured on the right-hand side, and above them, Dr Hofmeyr is surrounded by suffering people. Art historians refer to Picasso’s ‘sick sun’ in Guernica. Here, a candle hardly illuminating anything represents the absence of optimism and light. Tabs commemorating individuals who have died hang from the bottom of the piece. The fabrics used were the repurposed blankets and clothes of those who had died in the AIDS pandemic, creating an expression of outrage as well as commemoration.
By 2002 the Keiskamma Trust was formally established as a community health and development NGO, incorporating the artist collective as part of the larger framework. Since the group was formed, their remarkable works have been shown across the world. The voices of the artists and their community have indeed been heard. What a remarkable outcome from a sewing circle!
Picasso, Guernica, oil on canvas, 1937
Keiskamma Art Project: Keiskamma Guernica, 2010. Mixed media, including appliqué, felt, embroidery, rusted wire, metal tags, beaded AIDS ribbons, used blankets, and old clothes. Photo: Anthea Pokroy / Keiskamma Trust. Collection of Javett Art Centre at the University of Pretoria, Tshwane, South Africa.
About the Keiskamma Art Project: Founded in 2000, the Keiskamma Art Project in Hamburg, Eastern Cape, produces major textile artworks, which aid in the archiving of the rural Eastern Cape’s collective memory and the preservation of oral history. This unique project has won numerous awards, including the Business and Arts South Africa (BASA) Award and the Chairman’s Premier Award (2011), which recognises sustained and extraordinary commitment to the arts in South Africa. https://keiskammaartproject.org/; https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TCJMYPF3S90
Meryl Doney is a British independent fine art curator, specialising in presenting exhibitions in cathedrals, churches, festivals and other challenging spaces. She has curated over 40 exhibitions and performance pieces, including Moon Mirror by Rebecca Horne in St Paul’s Cathedral (London, UK) and Presence: Images of Christ for the Third Millennium, a series of thirteen different exhibitions in six different cathedrals involving 50 contemporary artists. Between 2006 and 2011 she was Director of Wallspace, a 'spiritual home for visual art' in All-Hallows-on-the-Wall church, in the City of London. In 2015 she was guest curator for CLEY 15, the North Norfolk open-submission exhibition at Cley-next-the-Sea, UK.
ArtWay Visual Meditation 16 July 2023