In a retrospective of work by the Keiskamma Art Project at Constitution Hill, much of the focus was placed on the vast array of craft skills displayed in the work. “What,” asks Pippa Hetherington, who co-curated the retrospective while working towards two solo exhibitions of her own, “of the artistic integrity and visual research that the artists have engaged with and presented across over 20 years of working together?” What of their art – can the consideration be more than the emphasis on just the project’s backstory, their entrepreneurial craft and the tired neo-liberal narrative of upskilling. What about recognising their artistic contribution to the legacies of global and local artmaking that engage with textiles and beadwork, inspiring new generations of contemporary artists who explore these materials in the post-medium, material-as-concept moment? Reflecting on her own work and current exhibition at Union House, Interlaced, Hetherington is struck by the interrelation between her current artistic work and her involvement with the Keiskamma Art Project. Recognising this through-motion of practice is essential: she honours artistic legacies by incorporating insights from the communities with whom she engages.
Currently on show in Cape Town, Hetherington’s most recent body of work explores the “fragmentary, shifting, spliced surfaces” of photographs by presenting them in a range of media, disrupting the boundaries of conventional photographic presentation. The title of the exhibition, Interlaced, calls back to Hetherington’s work with the Keiskamma Art Project. The Keiskamma artists taught her that stitching creates touch points across different histories. Hetherington unpicks conventions of photography and historiography, and joins different materials and techniques as a call to create and uncover new patterns. While weaving together influence and tribute, Hetherington reckons with positionality and perspective. “Sewing is my attempt to keep things together,” she comments, “and make things whole.”
Walking into Union House, a space run by Spier Arts Trust with the intention of supporting “transformation in the arts”, the viewer is confronted by a wall of encased “mielie dolls.” Each doll has been carefully made and dressed, then placed into a mirror-backed box. This is a confronting gesture. Peering into each box, the viewer is immediately confronted by their own face and resulting expression. Hetherington explains that the twelve mielie dolls relate to her early childhood memories of making dolls and dressing them in scraps of old fabric collected by her grandmother. “These early creative expressions were perhaps my first attempt at some form of psychological re-dress.” The mealie dolls, in their colourful, hand-stitched clothing, tie in tenuous histories through the incorporation of Shweshwe fabrics and British linens, -. They become contemporary relics that enshrine a sense of re-making, confrontation and introspection.
Textile-based practice has been expanding into the work of artists otherwise based in very different media, offering a new vocabulary of making; printmakers become weavers, sculptors become tapestry makers, and photographers become embroiderers. Hetherington’s works absorb the act of their making, question historical ties and incorporate a legacy of textile-based practice from the Keiskamma Art Project and Judy Chicago to the likes of Abongile Sidzumo and Zohra Opoku. As though following a train of thought across different materials, she dips between found objects and textiles to work with, into, on and through, tracing possibilities of how ‘the photograph’ can exist. The photographs themselves range broadly from cyanotypes to QR codes. Woven throughout her exhibition is a focus on portraiture, grappling with the question of looking and connecting.
Works like Lattice and the Interlaced Portrait series reflect Hetherington’s interest in fabric’s inherited codes, while enacting the processes of unpicking and remaking. Portraying friends, family and fellow artists, Hetherington presents each figure in formal postures that gesture to historic portraits. Interestingly, the artists depicted in the images are those who work with textiles and share, with Hetherington, an interest in interrogating material histories. Hetherington says, “As each person inhabits the dress voices and shares their truth, I feel a shimmering, ephemeral moment where past, present and future, you and I, collide and coalesce. A glimpse of lost heaven.” The physical creation of each portrait is layered to echo this shifting interaction.
The elaborately crafted garments are heavy, a burden to wear. As Nobukho Nqaba recalls, “It was heavy at the bottom, with all its layers. It was weighing me down. This is often the case when one works with childhood memories that are traumatic.” Nqaba finds Hetherington’s process of cutting, joining and reconfiguring to be a violent act, reflecting that it resonates with how “a person tries to piece together all these fragments from memory as an attempt to heal and process what they have gone through.” She adds, “When I wore the dress, I felt exposed and vulnerable… I always cover my shoulders. Putting on this dress made me feel uncovered, but one lays themselves bare through telling the story, letting others in on a part of their life.” As though in response, Hetherington proposes in her artist statement that “once the weight of repressed trauma is out in the open, shot through with light, it loses its density, becoming a transparent and colourful kaleidoscope of shifting meanings and configurations.” Hetherington suggests that the processes of making, unmaking and remaking allow for reinvention, an unburdening of the self.
It is in this space of reflection and storytelling that Hetherington’s work resonates. The objects that she presents are holding, delicately, the stories of the people she portrays. As Nqaba explains, “It is complete, in its weirdness and fragmentation. I guess it’s all these pieces or fragments from our past selves that makes us who we are today.”
The exhibition at Union House traces an ongoing exploration of textile-based practices that link back to her work with the Keiskamma Art Project, while also weaving in Hetherington’s photographic methodologies. The works split and break open traditions of portraiture and historiography by splicing together different materials and techniques, pulling together the proverbial threads that could allow for new patterns to be formed.