by Brenda Schmahmann
Reviewed by Stevie Godson
ALTHOUGH it was originally inspired by a hand-embroidered 11th century tapestry in the French cathedral city of Bayeux, the Eastern Cape’s own Keiskamma Tapestry is internationally recognised today and acclaimed as a work of art in its own right.
That’s hardly surprising because it tells a quite different story.
Even so, there are some obvious similarities between the two and these, as well as the differences that exist between the original and its African offspring, are eruditely examined in a new book by Brenda Schmahmann: The Keiskamma Art Project: Restoring Hope and Livelihoods.
A marvel of imagination and creativity, the Keiskamma Tapestry was dreamt up and driven by a compassionate medical doctor with a master’s degree in fine art.
After Dr Carol Hofmeyr’s obstetrician husband Justus took up a post in East London, the couple bought a property in Hamburg. Horrified by the poverty she saw there, Carol searched for cash-generating ideas to enable the local women to support their children.
After several false starts, including free art lessons, crocheted plastic bags, and paying for litter collection, she came up with the idea of the embroidery-based project which evolved into the now renowned 73-panel, 120m-long wall-hanging.
Embroidered in wool and beads, and depicting Xhosa history over the last 150 years, it’s a striking depiction of conquest, loss and eventual recovery.
Since the mammoth work’s completion in 2004, the Keiskamma initiative has taken on a life of its own, evolving into an ongoing, much-acclaimed art project with several studios. At the time this book was being written, the project was supporting 130 people.
Along the way, further artistic inspiration has come from several other international artworks, including Pablo Picasso’s explosively powerful political statement Guernica, on the devastation and despair wrought by war on an historic Spanish town. The Keiskamma Guernica focuses equally powerfully on the devastation and despair caused locally by the Aids pandemic.
Schmahmann, a professor and the South African Research Chair in South African art and visual culture at the University of Johannesburg, skilfully examines this as well as other Keiskamma project creations in a style that, while academic in nature, is both highly readable and completely accessible to the casual reader and scholar alike.
Beautifully and obviously lovingly produced, The Keiskamma Art Project: Restoring Hope and Livelihoods is, because of its visual subject matter, lavishly illustrated. I’m tempted to call it a coffee table book, but that would possibly trivialise its depth as well as its substance.
Explained Schmahmann in a recent television interview: “One of the mistakes sometimes people assume is that if a book is going to have well-researched and scholarly content, it’s going to have little, grim images, which is not true. You need beautiful images, clear images, to do justice to the works you’re talking about.”
Schmahmann has already published extensively on women artists, including those in community projects, and on contemporary South African art. Editor of Material Matters and co-editor of Between Union and Liberation: Women Artists in South Africa 1910-1994, she is also the author of Through the Looking Glass: Representations of Self by South African Women Artists; Mapula: Embroidery and Empowerment in the Winterveld; and Picturing Change: Curating Visual Culture at Post-Apartheid Universities.
And while her authoritative study of the work of the stunning Keiskamma art project is readable, well-executed and welcome, the art created by the rural women proves beyond doubt that narrative gifts are most certainly not conditional on words. – Stevie Godson
(This review was first published in the Daily Dispatch newspaper)