Eastern Cape artists capture climate fears

17 November 2023

 By: Joy January

A world-renowned group of embroidery artists have used their craft to express the threat climate change poses to small, rural communities.

They live in a remote community near the mouth of the Keiskamma River on the Eastern Cape coast, but their visible and emotional message about the impact of climate change on vulnerable rural communities will reach thousands of delegates at the COP28 climate summit in Dubai, which starts on November 30.

The Keiskamma Art Project, from the village of Hamburg, created the massive embroidery on behalf of the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF). The Flemish government contributed funding. The artwork will be exhibited at COP28’s South African pavilion at the invitation of Barbara Creecy, Minister of Forestry, Fisheries, and Environmental Affairs.

A total of 43 artists, mostly women, created the artwork called Umlibo. Umlibo is a pumpkin vine, and figuratively means “the one who brings and holds everyone together”. According to a statement from the WWF, umlibo is a symbol of the need to unite and spread the message about the climate crisis.

The artwork will be auctioned to raise funds for the project.

The embroidery artwork from the Keiskamma Art Project, Umlibo. Photo: Supplied

Hope and struggle

Some of the themes Umlibo tackles include the impact of unpredictable weather patterns and extreme weather events, declining marine life, concerns about the future, and pollution and its adverse impact on people’s mental wellbeing. It contains scenes of rural activities such as fishing, livestock farming and subsistence farming, showing hope and struggle.

The commission was part of a community project by WWF-SA in the Hamburg area focusing on alternative livelihoods and marine ecosystems.

Michaela Howse, project manager, says communities like theirs are moving forward thanks to partnerships that bring knowledge and skills and networks that are needed to grow and keep up with changes in the world.

“The Keiskamma Art Project is marginal in its existence with a secluded location and faces daily challenges with access and communication,” she says. “We overcome these problems only by what we create and how our art speaks to society. This connection is essential. It is an investment and a lifebuoy.”

This is not the first time the Keiskamma Art Project and its artists have tackled a globally significant subject. Previous works included the Keiskamma Altarpiece (2005) and the Keiskamma Guernica (2010), both of which were exhibited internationally and depicted the intergenerational devastation of the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) on communities.

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