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A dream come true - the trip of a lifetime

When Covid restrictions compromised our quest for a venue to exhibit the 16 collaborative textile art pieces created in 2020, Emma O’Brien, Director of The Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University Art Museum in Gqeberha (previously Port Elizabeth) and Michaela Howse of Keiskamma Art Centre came to our rescue. Emma agreed to curate and incorporate the cloths in their Transformational Textiles exhibition. The exhibition opened on 4 November 2021 and will run until 6 May 2022.

Pinky Rasenga & Zukiswa Zita discuss their work while Veronica Betani looks on.

This was a turning point which led to a most exciting development. A far-fetched dream of taking women from the Winterveld to meet their Keiskamma counterparts actually came true. Thanks to generous sponsorship, eight Mapula artists had the great adventure of travelling to Gqeberha to see their work exhibited at the museum known as NMMUM and meeting their Keiskamma partners.

Mapula & Keiskamma team members in Gqeberha (photo by Azola of NMU)

After spending time in Gqeberha, the group travelled on to the coastal hamlet of Hamburg where the Keiskamma Art Centre is based. A few Mapula trustees also joined the trip to offer support and experience the energy, creativity and growth that came from the visit. The organization required was huge but the whole plan came together magnificently and the developmental value will be long lasting.

The Mapula women boarded an overnight bus to undertake the 1110 km journey to the coast. Most had never been to the sea before. In Gqeberha they were met by Michaela Howse of Keiskamma who had planned a stimulating itinerary and thought of every need. Accommodation was in the historic Harbour Master’s House, a spacious double story Victorian building with a view of the harbour, now run as a backpackers. There they met for the first time, in person, the seven Keiskamma artists with whom they had collaborated.

Self-analysis & introspection in progress at the art museum (NMMUM)

Two days were spent at the NMMUM in a light, spacious, airy gallery where they were surrounded by the Transformational Textiles exhibition. Participants were almost overwhelmed by all that there was to see as they explored the varied fibre art on display. Time was devoted to studying the magnificent and heart-breaking Keiskamma Guernica, a huge textile work commemorating the painful struggle of rural communities dealing with the AIDS epidemic. This work, 7.8 x 3.5 metres was based on the 1937 painting by Picasso and was explained to us by Veronica Betani (Vero) one of the creators.

In pairs, the women described their own work and related the stories captured in stitch and thread. We heard about their daily lives and the stories that they’d shared. It was a lively moment when one pair who had already made friends, approached their creations, united in song. Angie Franke Weisswange a local fibre artist gave a talk and referred to her striking Shweshwe aloes which formed part of the exhibition. Annette du Plessis a prominent Eastern Cape artist gave a talk recounting her textile journey. She too had many finely worked embroidered pictures on display. The day ended with a long- anticipated visit to the beach, opportunities for photos taken against the breaking waves and a shared restaurant meal.

The second day was devoted to artists engaged in self-analysis, introspection, dreams and legacy. What emerged was a thread of great resilience as stories of hardship and poverty were recounted and the satisfaction of unknown talents being discovered. Embroidery had created new opportunities and the chance to earn money for all the women. The day ended with a walk to the nearby private GFI Gallery to see another exhibition of fibre art. Gqeberha is alive with creativity and there could have been no better place to exhibit the Mapula-Keiskamma collaborative works.

A 220km journey led to the hamlet of Hamburg, situated at the mouth of the Keiskamma River in the former poorly resourced Ciskei. As in the case of the Winterveld, this too is a very poor area with few facilities. Carol Hofmeyr a resident medical doctor and artist started, amongst other community initiatives, the Keiskamma Art Project which led the local artists and artisans to produce remarkable work. Here, the Mapula women could see projects under construction and learn new techniques. In particular, they were able to see the magnificent Keiskamma Altarpiece which drew inspiration from Matthias Grünewald’s 16th C altarpiece in Isenheim, France. AIDS had hit the community very hard and the trauma was evident in the Altarpiece which chronicled the epidemic. This large work has travelled to England, Canada, and throughout the United States and has been shown at various venues in South Africa. Although it is privately owned, its home is in Hamburg where it now resides, resonates, and rightfully belongs.

Examining the Keiskamma Altarpiece

The Mapula group were generously accommodated in Carol Hofmeyr’s home and that of a neighbour, within sound of the waves. They had a chance to experience the village as they walked to the studio each day. After-hours there was time for the pleasures of the beach. The communal evening meals were creatively prepared by the Mapula team. In workshops, Michaela encouraged the artists to delve deeper into their consciousness and explore, what worlds they touch, and what their legacy as artists might be. The Mapula women engaged with the concept and power of symbolism. We can anticipate finding this in future works.

The lasting impression of this visit to the Eastern Cape is one of incredible hospitality, inspiring textile art and new ideas, full immersion and participation. ‘Remote friendships’ were made concrete and aspirations for a visit by Keiskamma artists to the Winterveld are beginning to form.

Unforgettable days spent at the Keiskamma Art Centre in Hamburg

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