It’s a triple treat with three important community embroidery groups coming together for a phenomenal exhibition at Tshwane’s Association of Arts with the bonus of some traditional work, which had an influence on all the others. DIANE DE BEER embroiders on the show that will be running until May 29 :
With Needle and Thread is the perfect name for this exciting and extraordinary exhibition where three community groups creating hand embroidered textiles from the Eastern Cape, Gauteng and Limpopo as well as some solo women making traditional cloths from Northern Limpopo, are all brought together to showcase their work.
Included are the Keiskamma Art Project, (Hamburg, Eastern Cape), Kaross (Letsitele, Limpopo), Mapula Emrboideries (Winterveld, Gauteng) and as an added bonus some traditional Minceka by the Tsonga-Shangaan women in the far Northern Limpopo.
All three projects are established embroidery groups with works hanging in museums locally and abroad and they feature in many national and international publications on textile art. All three are highly regarded and can be seen as the most important community art projects in their field in this country.
The Kaross embroidery project produces beautiful and evocative quality African embroidery, which are hand-crafted by women and men from VaTsonga and Northern Sotho cultural backgrounds since its inception in 1989. Their impetus has always been sustainable development and employment and they strive to create a commercially viable product that will help sustain all their embroiderers and employees.
Before the devastating effects of Covid-19 on International tourism, they provided an income to more than 1 400 embroiderers, mostly women.
Their skilled stitching and their affinity for unusual and artistic colour combinations combined with well-designed Kaross images, makes their work distinctive.
They create mainly tableware, homeware and wall art, and currently export worldwide.
The Keiskamma Art Project is part of the greater Keiskamma Trust, a South African not-for-profit organization dedicated to the holistic care of the communities that live in the area. alongside the Keiskamma River in the Eastern Cape. The trust was founded in 2000 by artist and doctor, Carol Hofmeyr and today the Keiskamma Art Project, the flagship of the greater Trust, works to maintain its founder’s vision, providing vital livelihoods through dignified work, while communicating, through art, the reality of rural lives affected by both poverty and history.
Their aim is to provide employment and to support the development of creative skills for predominantly women and young members of the community who are then empowered with entry into the economy.
The Art Project engages collaboratively with artists from around the world and supplies training in design and craft skills and nurtures skills in production, financial administration, and computing, useful for the running of the Art studio and its shop.
They are especially well known and loved for large scale monumental artworks, from the Keiskamma Tapestry on permanent exhibition at the Houses of Parliament in Cape Town to the Keiskamma Altarpiece which has toured North America and England for two years, displayed in the most prestigious cathedrals, such as Washington and Southwark and their Keiskamma Guernica, a magnificent work can be seen in the UP Javett Art Centre.
But the anticipation for this current exhibition are the three large tapestries depicting key events in the life of Reverend Stephen Mzamane, the main character in A Sin of Omission (2019), the novel by Marguerite Poland, which has just been named as one of the books on the Sunday Times longlist for fiction 2021.
The novel is based on a true story and opens with Stephen (Malusi) Mzamane, a young Anglican priest, journeying to his mother’s rural home to inform her of his elder brother’s death. First educated at the Native College in Grahamstown, Stephen was sent to England in 1869 for training at the Missionary College in Canterbury. But on his return home, relegated to a dilapidated mission near Fort Beaufort, he had to confront not only the prejudices of a colonial society but the discrimination within the Church itself.
Seventeen artists from the Keiskamma Art Project were involved in the making of these works, in tribute to Poland, a long-time collaborator and close friend of the project. The themes of her literary works are felt intimately within the communities of the rural Eastern Cape where their Art Project is based.
The artists visited Nondyola, the missionary station to which Stephen was sent on his return from Canterbury, and the site of the Anglican Institution in Grahamstown, in order to understand more fully who Stephen was and what he experienced. Moved by his story, the artists chose scenes from his life to depict as tapestries.
Once you’ve seen the embroideries, you will want to read the book.
Mapula Embroideries celebrate their 30th anniversary this year. They assist over 150 women in developing artistic skills as they create unique embroidered works for sale. This income helps to feed and educate their children and improve their overall lives.
The Winterveld, where the women live and create, 70 kilometres northwest of Tshwane has a complex and troubled history because of political, social, economic and gender forces that have left the area under-developed and many residents unemployed, poor, and vulnerable. Their struggles and triumphs have been reflected in many of their embroideries over the years.
The project was initiated by the Pretoria Club of Soroptimist International in 1991. They have developed an intricate system involving design, production, and development of artistic skills. The project is now administered through the independent Mapula Embroidery Trust, a locally registered non-profit organization.
The Sisters of Mercywho live and run an education and skills training centrein the Winterveld, provide the embroiderers with the use of a workspace free of charge and have been involved with the project from the beginning.
They are internationally known for their depiction of historical events and social history through their embroideries. Their part of the exhibition will consist mainly of wall hangings with these themes. They include deeply personal images of the very real implications that Covid-19 has had on their lives and their society.
The traditional Tsonga /Shangaan Minceka are also being shown at this exhibition as they can be regarded as influencing some of the embroiderers of Kaross and Mapula Embroideries. They are, for some of the embroiderers, their traditional inspiration.
A ncheka (singular) (minceka, plural) – is part of the traditional attire which is worn as a wrap that ties across the woman’s shoulders. It can be either a cloth, printed in bright colours, or a dark blue cloth with a printed black pattern, richly embroidered by incorporating beads, small mirrors, bells and safety pins. Hundreds of small brass safety pins are used to pin on the garment which then forms the patterns. The brass safety pins are referred to as the quick stich.
To see these authentic and increasingly rare cloths in real life is special.
As in so many instances across the country, Covid-19 has had a severe economic impact on each project. They’re hoping that the sales from this exhibition will help towards their sustainability but for viewers, it’s a fantastic opportunity to see the scope of the country’s community embroiderers – and that’s quite something.