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Umlibo, a large-scale tapestry from the tiny village of Hamburg in the Eastern Cape, is set to change minds on climate change and sustainable livelihoods across the globe. Created by artists at the Keiskamma Art Project, Umlibo’s journey includes being on display at the COP28 climate negotiations in Dubai. Here, the artists share their personal experience of climate impacts, sustainable livelihoods, and art as advocacy. Their stories are both unique and universal as climate impacts will ultimately affect everyone across the globe.
Nozeti Makhubalo has lived many lives during her 62 years.
Today, rheumatoid arthritis makes the most basic tasks difficult, but in her youth, she would creep down to the Eastern Cape shoreline in the tiny village of Hamburg at night with a screwdriver in one hand and a bag around her wrist.
Under cover of night, she would draw in some breath and duck under the icy water, prising abalone off the rocks before popping up again, silhouetted by the moon.
“Yes,” she says without hesitation, “I was an abalone poacher back then, and it was terrifying.”
Today, she is an ecowarrior and artist who, along with 42 other artists, has created Umlibo, a masterpiece embroidery of 5m by 2m which was unveiled in Hamburg recently and Cape Town this week to tell the story of climate impacts and the importance of sustainable livelihoods in building resilience.
The massive artwork will travel with the South African delegation to COP28 in December, and the piece will ultimately be auctioned off.
Portraying hardship and hope in equal measure, this intricate tapestry was brought to life by the same artists who created the world-renowned Keiskamma Altarpiece (2005) and the Keiskamma Guernica (2010) both of which depicted the devastation of HIV and both of which travelled around the world.
They also made waves with their 120m tapestry that mimics the famous Bayeux Tapestry of Europe, but which tells the story from the perspective of those subjugated at the hands of the Europeans.
Now owned by a major bank group in the country, it has graced the walls of both Parliament and Constitution Hill.
The artists are from the Keiskamma Art Project and while their signature style of colourful embroidery is known across the world, this is their first piece looking at environmental issues.
“Climate change is the biggest existential threat of our time with global warming and extreme weather events already destroying communities, and scientific modelling suggesting it is only going to get much worse,” says Craig Smith, senior manager of the marine portfolio at WWF South Africa which commissioned the climate advocacy artwork with funding from the government of Flanders.
A portion of the income acquired through the auction will flow back into the art project and a portion will be funnelled into the ongoing climate work of WWF South Africa.
“Rural coastal communities are typically highly dependent on natural resources for their livelihoods. Climate change will disrupt these traditional activities, making such communities particularly vulnerable. It is of critical importance that every effort is made to reduce global carbon emissions,” says Smith.
The 43 artists, mainly women, are from the tiny town (and surrounding villages) of Hamburg located at the mouth of the Keiskamma River.
The artists have become a gentle but critical voice of some of the biggest issues of our time.
Threaded into this latest artwork on climate impacts is not just the expert stitching and design, but also the voices of the artists.
Sharing their personal stories, they say that many environmental factors are changing in front of their eyes and as they become more aware of climate change, they join the dots of what is going wrong.
For Zukiswa Zitha, from Hamburg’s neighbouring village Ntilini, increased soil erosion after unseasonal storms has made her nervous about the infrastructure in this remote part of the country.
After hearing of the deadly floods in KwaZulu-Natal last year, she fears the untarred roads getting washed away in Hamburg one day.
“When a storm that bad comes to our area, the roads won’t be accessible. We are scared,” she says.
Climate change is expected to worsen the frequency, intensity and impacts of such extreme weather events, but these are often under-reported in Africa.
The KZN floods killed at least 460 people, while in the same year, Tunisia experienced major wildfires, Uganda and Ethiopia were struck by drought and famine, and Nigeria and Chad also saw severe flooding.
For Cebo Mvubu, who manages production on the art project, childhood memories are decorated with tiny cows made of clay he and his friends sculpted on hot summer days by the dam.
Life is different now. His 13-year-old daughter is more familiar with smart phones than clay cows, and endless days of swimming are no longer a feature of childhood.
As times have changed, so have the weather patterns, creating challenges for planting crops, maintaining livestock and relying on fishing as a livelihood.
“Winters are now muddy and wet. In my childhood, winter was cold but there was no rain. Livestock get foot rot because the rain makes so much mud. It used to only rain in summer and then the sun would dry everything, so we had that balance.”
‘Swimming prawns’ used to be a species Cebo’s fishing co-op harvested in the early months of the year from the river, but he says now it’s hardly worth going to look for them anymore.
Michaela Howse, project manager of the Keiskamma Art Project, sees art such as Umlibo as playing an important role in spreading awareness.
"Science can be hard to communicate but art is about stories and people. It is a form of information people can digest and relate to. Art becomes the vehicle to bring the message to the people.”
Siya Maswana’s design concepts appear across the many beautiful but hard-hitting pieced pieces created by the Keiskamma artists since he joined them in 2015.
With their latest masterpiece focusing on climate impacts and sustainable livelihoods, he sees spreading awareness as a moral imperative.But it’s not always easy.
“I see in Hamburg we have got different cultures. There are Christians and there are traditional Xhosa beliefs. Some people have both. It is hard for people to understand what is going on around the world and how to face things like global warming,” he says, “because these are not things we are taught as we raise kids the way we have always done.”
According to Unesco, only 53% of countries have climate change education in their national curricula, and 70% of learners cannot explain what climate change is, yet education is crucial for changing mindsets.
For Maswana, the focus should be on the local and not just the global, the real and not the abstract, the visible and not the theoretical.
“Tell people how it will affect our cows and livestock, or our shoreline sandfish stocks. Then they can understand,” he says.
For Kwandi Paliso, some solutions lie in ancient practices like growing, rearing, and harvesting one’s own diverse range of food. Colourful vegetables of all shapes and sizes have formed the backdrop to her home life since she was born and working the soil comes as second nature.
“By the time our grandchildren reach adulthood, climate change will be worse. They don’t want anything to do with the garden. They are only interested in screens and phones, but they’re the ones who are going to feel the impact of climate change the most.”
Download the artwork and read the stories of the artists behind Umlibo