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The bigger picture of Umlibo

The intricate and contrasting 'Umlibo' climate advocacy artwork imbues its analogy: the isiXhosa meaning is of a pumpkin vine that grows and spreads over time as if infused with magic, sending tendrils of potential across many paths. This is the hope of Umlibo…

© WWF South Africa / Sue Northam-Ras
Keiskamma Art Project’s Veronica Betani talks enthusiastically about her experience of working on Umlibo.
Of climate impacts and innovation

The up-close details in this giant hand-embroidered mural artwork are astounding!

“Today, I am standing here, proud of myself for being part of this artwork,” says Veronica Betani. She is the head seamstress of the Keiskamma Art Project. She has been part of the art project since its inception over 20 years ago.

Veronica told us how they even incorporated “waste” into this latest larger-than-life artwork, the first time these artists have used recycled materials. Tin to create the silver fish in the river. Plastic bottles to produce the flowers at the top.

Veronica told us how they learnt to turn everyday waste items into workable materials; and to see the opportunities in climate change too – first to acknowledge it is coming, and then to take action.

© WWF South Africa / Pippa Hetherington
The wind turbine motif on Umlibo is inspired by the giant turbines on the hills of Hamburg.
A moment in time: where art, climate impacts and community intertwine

On 4 October 2023, in the small town of Hamburg in South Africa’s Eastern Cape province, a lucky few witnessed the first unveiling and official handover of Umlibo. Months of work culminated since WWF South Africa commissioned the climate advocacy artwork.

The celebration event was a curation of heart-opening original music by the Keiskamma Music Academy as a soundtrack to the rich stories and visuals. Jubilance and impromptu singing abounded! The artwork’s many tendrils of climate advocacy began to spread… 

© WWF South Africa / Sue Northam-Ras
Cebo Mvubu of the Keiskamma Art Project hands over the certificate of authenticity to Craig Smith of WWF.
Where creativity and climate change connect

The embroidered Umlibo tapestry is a testament to one of the most important – yet mostly invisible – issues of our time: climate change. And, of course, the impacts of climate change on the most vulnerable people who live close to the sea, those who will be most affected yet least equipped to adapt to its wicked ways.

Beneath the delicate, dedicated stitches, one starts to see the bigger picture emerging, understanding the commitment of time and careful thought to land a masterpiece so majestic. Each stitch is planned and placed. Each element designed, crafted, connected.

I look at the larger-than-life artwork before me: not a centimetre of hessian in sight. Yet, hessian is the sturdy fabric that lies beneath Umlibo, this magic creation of colourful thread. Like our foundational climate that holds our fragile planet together, we can quickly forget the essential unseen – and the vital role it plays. 

© WWF South Africa / Sue Northam-Ras
Cows roam free, in contrast to the steadfast wind turbines, as you enter and leave the small town of Hamburg.
Hamburg: a place of coastal beauty and vulnerable communities

When most people first hear mention of Hamburg, many think of the busy port city in Germany. When googling, this is also what is offered. On adding “in South Africa”, a small and quiet coastal town in the Eastern Cape pops up…

While this remote town does boast abundant sunshine and a beautiful beach, it also has a sad collective past. A similar story could be told for other rural parts of the Eastern Cape.

© WWF South Africa / Sue Northam-Ras
A smaller Keiskamma artwork which tells a short yet profound story in “mock fairytale” form.
A brief history of Hamburg

As the Google history goes, the town was founded in 1857 by German settlers who set out to establish a port at the river mouth. The harbour silted up, but Hamburg later developed into a popular family holiday spot because of its stunning beach. In 1972, under apartheid, it was incorporated into Ciskei, one of the designated homelands.

© WWF South Africa / Sue Northam-Ras
A quirky hand-made sign welcomes you to the quaint town of Hamburg in the Eastern Cape.
Putting Hamburg on the map

After the effects of migrant work, many people in the rural Eastern Cape were suffering and dying from the impact of rampant HIV – with no HIV/AIDS education nor treatment options.

In 2000, Carol Hofmeyr, a doctor and artist living in Hamburg, founded the Keiskamma Trust. She first started a health programme to provide hospice care and HIV antiretroviral treatment. Later, in the face of high unemployment, she realised a need to create alternative income and local work – and her incredible vision for the Keiskamma Art Project was born.

A plethora of embroidered artworks have since been gifted to the world, stitching together the hopes, sweat and tears of a group of mostly women from this small coastal town.

From Carol’s vision to work with local women to support and uplift a rural community in need, South Africa’s Hamburg has become known on the world stage as the birthplace of many now world-renowned “Keiskamma” masterpieces.

© WWF South Africa / Sue Northam-Ras
The Keiskamma Art Project shop sits along the Keiskamma River near the entrance to Hamburg.
Placing Hamburg on our coast

While South Africans might know the Wild Coast, from KwaZulu-Natal’s border to East London, including the coastal gems of Port St Johns and Coffee Bay, the Eastern Cape’s Sunshine Coast gets less promotional shine. Yet, this coastline receives the most sun in the country – 320 days a year!

From East London south, past Gqeberha to Jeffreys Bay, the Sunshine Coast offers quiet coastal villages, vast rivers, lagoons and good swimming beaches. This stretch is ideal for holidaymakers. Good getaway spots include Kidds Beach, Port Alfred, Kenton-on-Sea and Bushman’s River Mouth.

Hidden amongst these popular holiday destinations is Hamburg. 

Off the dusty less-travelled track

The charm of towns like Hamburg is that they are a bit less accessible, a bit less well known…

Just over an hour’s drive from East London, on a good stretch of the N2, is the dusty turn-off to Hamburg. Another 20 or so minutes of adequate gravel road completes the journey.

The promise of a tarred road from the N2 to Hamburg’s coast is visible as large sections of demarcated road, defined and partly graded, await their finishing tar touches albeit for a few years now. 

© WWF South Africa / Sue Northam-Ras
The promise of a tarred road in Hamburg.
Life in Hamburg

Largely rural with rolling grasslands, roads and hills are dotted with Nguni cows as the local “traffic”. Hamburg is home to just over 1 000 people. The wide and calm Keiskamma River meanders like a silent companion along the last stretch of road into the small town, whereafter it soon meets the sea.

The beach at the river mouth is long and wide with white sand. Pristine and beautiful. A sign says that it is a “Blue Flag” beach. 

Seeing the other side

While in Hamburg for the special Umlibo celebration, I sat next to a guy called CJ. He told me he worked as a lifeguard from November to February. For the rest of the year, he gardens.

CJ said that without his garden, he would die. He asked if I gardened. I paused, thought about my garden in the suburbs of Cape Town, and told him I did. My ratio of lawn to vegetable planting area is woefully skewed compared to rural standards, but I do grow food. And it brings me joy and satisfaction. CJ tells me he mainly grows lettuce and spinach, which he also sells.

From also meeting Cebo, the production manager behind Keiskamma Art Project, I’d heard about his passion for gardening, too. He started growing spinach when the Covid-19 pandemic hit. Their healthy homegrown crop sustains his family with fresh veggies.

© WWF South Africa / Sue Northam-Ras
The “office view” over the river from the Keiskamma building in Hamburg.
The creative heart of Hamburg

Besides Cebo, the 43 permanent Keiskamma artists are primarily women.

With the Keiskamma Art Project workshop as a central building in the town and a cornerstone of the community, the ethos of the art project has always been community orientated.

© WWF South Africa / Pippa Hetherington
A few of the Keiskamma artists as they plan some of the Umlibo scenes of nature and the ocean.
The art of Hamburg

The Keiskamma Art Project has been pivotal in putting Hamburg on the map. And the chosen art form of embroidery, cleverly conveying provocative topics, has made the Keiskamma artworks world famous.

Inspired by many of the historic Western tapestries of centuries past, Carol Hofmeyr and the Keiskamma team carefully chose the subject matter of each formative artwork.

The first was the 122m Keiskamma Tapestry, albeit inaccurately titled as it is not a woven tapestry but a hand-embroidered creation, modelled off the 11th-century Bayeux Tapestry in France. Now residing in the halls of Cape Town’s parliament, this local Keiskamma artwork tells a 200-year story, since the arrival of the colonialists in 1820, told by those who came from the Eastern Cape and all that ensued from there. An original piece of South African history.

From our rural history, the next focus was HIV/AIDS with the 2005 Keiskamma Altarpiece. This one was modelled on Isenheim’s Altarpiece from Germany, a 15th-century sculpted and painted altarpiece which includes three carved wooden statues of saints. The localised version was, of course, created with colourful thread, together with wood, wire, beadwork and portrait photographs. A mixed-media, multi-layered masterpiece. Each layer is a different piece in the story of HIV in rural Hamburg.

The Keiskamma Altarpiece truly evokes awe. When I saw it in Hamburg and heard about its inspiration, I felt that I was standing in the presence of a very important piece of history!

Almost 20 years ago, this Keiskamma Altarpiece was sent to Toronto, Canada, to open the 2006 global AIDs conference at a time when Thabo Mbeki was president of South Africa and Manto Tshabalala-Msimang was then Minister of Health, known by her nickname as “Dr Beetroot” for her negative stance on antiretroviral treatment for HIV/AIDS.

In 2010, angered at the government’s mismanagement of the AIDS crisis, Keiskamma created an interpretation of Picasso’s famous anti-war painting, the Guernica. The localised Keiskamma Guernica was an outcry – for a different cause. 

Threading together rural stories of climate impacts

The stories of eight humans from Hamburg, each of them an artist or embroiderer within the Keiskamma Art Project, share their stories of daily life and rural struggle in a special keepsake booklet created by WWF. Beautifully woven tales of dreams and despair, lived experiences and memories held together in a curated book and brought to life with anecdotes and powerful photos.

© WWF South Africa / Sue Northam-Ras
Special stories of climate impacts in the Umlibo artwork book.
Climate smart in Hamburg

What the Keiskamma Altarpiece proved is that these impressive iconic artworks matter – in South Africa and around the world. They are worthy global conference openers and individual conversation starters. They also stand the test of time as a history record to say: “This happened”, and “this matters”!

Umlibo should be no different. As it left its place of creative birth, Umlibo made its way to the Mother City, like many from Hamburg before it. In Cape Town, the artwork began its world tour.

Umlibo will travel to the Middle East next – to Dubai – to be a visual voice of the vulnerable voiceless at the global climate conference (COP), running from 30 November until 12 December 2023. 

Call for climate action: from rural Hamburg to the world

At a time when devastating heatwaves, severe drought, floods and other extreme weather events are battering our coastlines, communities and news channels, the time for the power of Umlibo is now.

With the 2023 climate negotiations ahead, may this community climate advocacy artwork speak to the hearts, minds and shared humanity of all who hear about it – especially our world leaders.

© WWF South Africa / Sue Northam-Ras
A few of the Keiskamma atists who worked on Umlibo.
Sue Northam-Ras Photo
Sue Northam-Ras, Communications Manager: Environmental Programme

Sue loves to write and make information meaningful.

Discover more about Umlibo

Click here to sign up and download the free Umlibo booklet.