In the entrance to the South African Parliament a remarkable piece of artwork winds its way along the wall, its 120-metre length reaching through the lobby to wrap around the exterior of the chamber.
This is the Keiskamma Tapestry, an exquisite embroidery in the tradition of the famous Bayeux Tapestry and the work of over 100 previously unemployed women from the Eastern Cape.
Along its length, the tapestry tells the turbulent history of the Cape frontier region, from the Stone Age San through the wars and tragedies of the Xhosa people to the peaceful resolution of the 1994 elections.
The artwork’s presence in Parliament reflects the kinder, more vibrant and open nature of post-apartheid South Africa. Under the old regime, forbidding portraits of the 1961 Cabinet stared down from the walls of the austere lobby – including one of HF Verwoerd, the architect of grand apartheid.
Interestingly, Verwoerd features on the tapestry, at the Rand Show in 1961 – the site of the first assassination attempt against him – and right next to an image of Nelson Mandela burning his pass book during the ANC’s 1959 defiance campaign.
From craft to art
The tapestry is a product of the Keiskamma Trust, set up in 2000 as a skills development project in the impoverished Hamburg region of the Eastern Cape. The trust helps women of the region develop their traditional embroidery skills to produce craftwork of a scale and skill that approaches art – which has a higher premium.
Inspired by the Bayeux Tapestry, created by Saxon women in 1067 to tell the story of the Norman invasion of England, the Keiskamma Tapestry follows the same form as that artwork, with a similar narrative structure.
It begins with the San Bushmen, the earliest inhabitants of the Eastern Cape, with embroidered replicas of the rock art images of animals and human forms the hunter gatherers left behind.
It then follows the history of the Xhosa people in the region, to the arrival of the white colonial settlers, the frontier wars and the great cattle killing of 1856.
In that tragic event Nongqawuse, a 15-year-old girl prophet, instructed the people to kill 400 000 of their cattle, leading to mass starvation and the end of effective Xhosa resistance to white encroachment.
Cattle are a dominant motif throughout the tapestry, reflecting their importance in the history and economy of the Xhosa people.
The tapestry continues through the history of the Eastern Cape and South Africa as a whole, ending with the country’s first democratic elections in 1994. In creating the epic embroidery, the trust says, the women involved came to learn about their own history, which they can then disseminate throughout their community.
The Keiskamma Tapestry was created with funding from the Department of Arts and Culture and over 100 private donations. The Standard Bank bought the work for R500 000, and loaned it for a long-term exhibit in Parliament.
It was unveiled by Parliamentary Speaker Baleka Mbete on International Women’s Day, 8 March 2006, at a ceremony attended, among others, by all of the Eastern Cape women who laboured to create it.
View the full Keiskamma Tapestry on the Keiskamma Trust website.