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Exhibition of wearable art sews together parallel stories of Settler history

by | Aug 31, 2020

The opening of the Cuttings 1820 – 2020 exhibition, a tribute to South African women and their histories, is a fitting closing to Women’s Month. The symbolically-charged collaborative exhibition by artist, Pippa Hetherington and the Keiskamma Art Project explores the fabric of our society, unravelling and re-stitching histories into symbolic frocks. The fabric is sewn together healing the wounds of parallel histories.

At a virtual exhibition opening hosted by the GFI Art Gallery, Pippa Hetherington and the Keiskamma Art Project cut the digital ribbon to their exquisite project, Cuttings 1820 – 2020. The gallery is housed in a landmark art deco building in Port Elizabeth, a few kilometres away from where the 1820 Settler ships arrived 200 years ago.

The seed for Cuttings 1820-2020 was planted while Pippa was a fine art masters student in New York in 2018. “I was terribly homesick for South Africa which brought into view how I saw myself in the context of personal and shared histories.” Pippa had worked alongside women from the world-renowned Keiskamma Art Project for many years, and realised the significance of their influence on her craft. “Through art making I began to articulate that.”

On her return to South Africa from the International Center of Photography-Bard College in 2019, Pippa began working on Cuttings 1820-2020 with the Keiskamma Art Project. This project was founded in 2000 in an Eastern Cape town called Hamburg. It is an artists’ collective that archives the rural Eastern Cape memory and oral history. It is also a source of income and support for Hamburg’s women and youth. Today, Keiskamma Art Project’s work is found in national and international exhibition and museum spaces.

As a descendant of the 1820 settlers, Pippa was struck by the juxtaposition of her British ancestor’s history and the history of the ancestors of the Xhosa women with whom she works at the Keiskamma Art Project. Together with embroiderers Nozeti Makhubalo, Nomonde Mtandana, Nomfundo Makhubalo, Nothandile Bopani; visual artist, Cathy Stanley; and wire artist, Siya Maswana, they unravel the historical landscape of the Frontier wars in the Eastern Cape. Through cutting and stitching they bring dialogue to the fore.

The result: Ten hand-stitched garments using Dutch wax print and the South African manufactured isiShweshwe cloth which are juxtaposed with English-inspired fabrics like those by William Morris. The indigenous stories are woven together with settler stories, interchanging people and pattern. Pivoting on the relationship between female descendants of the Eastern Cape Xhosa nation and of the 1820 British settlers, Cuttings 1820-2020 not only incorporates dressmaking but also assemblage, embroidery, video and photography.

Women and women’s clothing are the conduit of the theme and message of the exhibition, and are intentionally the focal point of the project. “Stories from the Frontier wars have been predominantly written by white men. There are very few women’s voices coming through the current storytelling. We wanted to use the artwork as a way of telling our female stories,” says Pippa.

Kehinde Wiley’s use of the William Morris florals in his paintings drew Pippa to question the interchange between people and pattern. In a series of workshops with Keiskamma, the artists responded to the questions provoked by the patterns. Pieces that did not feel comfortable on the eye were sewn together in an intended metaphor for the discomfort but importance of talking about histories.

Keiskamma embroiderer Nozeti Makhubalo said, “Cutting the pieces of material to make the outfits felt like we were mending the wounds of history. The material representing two histories used to make one dress was like healing balm for the scars of a difficult history.”

Local artist Cathy Stanley experimented with different body shapes to display the garments, workshopping different forms from plaster, stuffed fabric, to wire. The wire forms which look like thread tied together, represent transparency and neutrality.

Pippa has made use of clay pigment in her portraits and photographs for the project. The use of the clay pigment in some pieces has historic significance. It represents the clay pits on the border between the Xhosa and the British settlers that were a cause of conflict. The British government banned the Xhosa from collecting the clay, which they had been using for many years as a cosmetic commodity.

“I also took photographs of the landscape where the Frontier wars were fought, and purposefully scanned the negatives (keeping them as negatives) and printed them onto cotton. The use of the negative has been a way of talking about a repository of memory, it also speaks to the negative spaces the wire body forms create.”

Pippa’s ancestors were given land directly next to the clay pits. “Nozeti and I went on a field trip to the clay pits to collect the rock pieces that, when rubbed together and mixed with water, make the clay. Standing on a site of conflict together was extremely moving and significant in our process. As a result, it felt instinctual to somehow use the clay in our work.”

Interestingly, Pippa regards the work as “unfinished”. In a powerful statement symbolic of the GBV plight women in South Africa face every day, Pippa says: “There will never be a final product. There is always more work to be done. This is an ongoing conversation and work will continue to emerge from our vibrant exchanges.”

With the 200 centenary of the arrival of the 1820 British settlers, Pippa hopes that Cuttings 1820-2020 will disrupt the narrative of a history that has been told largely from a white man’s perspective. She also hopes her collaborative work will encourage people to think about where they come from in the context of who they are now. Not only against the backdrop of the Eastern Cape history of South Africa, but in the world.

“Making visible the scars through stitching and sewing, reparation doesn’t mean hiding the wounds. Congolese artist, Patrick Bongoy, talks about not erasing history but rather letting art and art material reshape his identity. I love this idea, I hope the Cuttings work can also provide people with a sense of wearing their histories and reshaping the course of it.”

For more information watch the interview with Pippa and visit the virtual exhibition below:

  • Feature image: Catherine Del Monte
  • Copy images: Pippa Hetherington
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