The Keiskamma Art Project’s account of a harrowing time in South Africa’s history

The Keiskamma Guernica (a work by the Keiskamma Art Project) is a profoundly important work, not only for the place it takes in our 101 Collecting Conversations: Signature Works of a Century collection, but also for the account it gives of the ravages HIV/Aids wrought in a rural Eastern Cape community around 20 years ago.

The Keiskamma Art Project is an Eastern Cape-based collective that empowers women. The project runs out of the former Aids centre close to the village of Hamburg where people came for treatment before antiretrovirals were withdrawn from public health care.

About 40 people met online in a Javett-UP virtual public event on 9 August to listen to Professor Brenda Schmahmann of the Faculty of Art, Design and Architecture at the University of Johannesburg discuss the work and give greater insight about the artists who created it, what inspired them, and the harrowing circumstances that gave rise to this work.

That the event took place on Women’s Day was significant as the artists by whose hands the Keiskamma Guernica was created were women in a small Eastern Cape village near East London who personally experienced overwhelming tragedy as the virus took hold, and as the notorious policies of then President Thabo Mbeki denied South Africans access to life-saving antiretroviral drugs.

Keiskamma Tapestry African Guernica 01 Cropped

The Keiskamma Geurnica, Professor Schmahmann said, is inspired by Picasso’s 1937 Guernica that tells of the horrors of the Spanish Civil War. Keiskamma Art Project artists have taken elements from the Picasso work, interpreting them to tell their own story. The bereft mother holding her dead infant in Picasso’s work, for example, was translated by the Keiskamma artists into a weeping mother holding her dying adult child: clearly a deeply tragic record of the many, many young adult lives that Aids claimed in South Africa when the epidemic was at its peak.

The fact that the artists who created the Keiskamma Guernica used the medium of embroidered tapestry gives us a wealth of depth and texture to contemplate in this iconic work. The Keiskamma Guernica sun is made out of worn, discarded overalls as the artists show a deep feeling of despair and depletion. These are literally the clothes that those who lived through the tragedy wore: and wore until they could no longer be worn.

Other elements in the work are created from the blankets that were used in the Aids treatment centre when it was forced to close, bringing the lives of those who benefited from the treatment centre into the work, while also reflecting the despair of those who had no access to help during that time.

Like Picasso’s work, this masterpiece relays a story of a bomb that was unleashed on innocent, helpless people. The sense of despair and mourning is profound. As a work of art, it captures the impact of the HIV/Aids epidemic, and how it came close to destroying the most vulnerable of South African communities.

101 Collecting Conversations: Signature Works of a Century curator Shenaz Mohamed said Javett-UP felt incredibly privileged to have the work as part of the exhibition, and to give so many South Africans an opportunity to view it.

“It's a work of immense technical skill that carries a profoundly powerful message and record of a devastating time in our history,” she said. “The fact that fabric and clothing were the medium of choice sends a clear message in itself: these are items people use to protect and cover themselves. When the epidemic was at its peak, life-giving care was withheld, resulting in a national tragedy whose horror reverberates today.”

The work is on loan to Javett-UP by the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan Art Museum. “It’s an incredible privilege for us to hold it here, and give so many people an opportunity to see it,” Mohamed said.

Tapestry and embroidery are established art mediums in South Africa. Janetje van der Merwe from Mapula Embroideries in the Winterveld joined the Keiskamma Guernica conversation and shared news that artists there are working on a series of embroidered tapestries that document the Covid-19 experiences of South African communities. She shared photographs of some of these works in progress. Javett-UP looks forward to the public debut of these works.