Creating stories of hope stitch by stitch

(Edmonton) In Nozeti Makhubulo’s modest, one-page biography, pinned to a wall in the University of Alberta Rutherford Library South, the divorced mother of six daughters declares, “I haven’t studied art, but I am an artist by birth. I am sending messages through the world by changing words into pictures.”

The South African woman, who fled an arranged marriage after years of abuse, is now a designer for the Keiskamma Trust, creating beautiful, functional art, and along the way, crafting a better life for herself and her family. With no formal training, Makhubulo is nonetheless a vibrant artist.

Some of her creations—folksy renderings of cows that adorn cloth shopping bags and other textiles—are on display as part of the U of A’s International Week celebration. Stitch by Stitch: Art as a Path to Hope in Rural South Africa is a textiles exhibit featuring the colourful handmade work of men and women like Makhubulo who live in the Eastern Cape of South Africa. The exhibit, which opened Jan. 10 and closes Feb. 11 in the library with a public sale of all the items from 1 to 4 p.m., embodies the strength and talent of the homegrown artists, who rely on the proceeds of their work to make a living.

“They are an amazing group of people,” said Marilyn Scott, curator for the exhibit and a board member of Keiskamma Canada Foundation, which is sponsoring the exhibit. Featuring 80 pieces, the exhibit is a colourful assortment of bright, cheerful tapestries, scarves, T-shirts, bags, pins, cushion covers, aprons, bangles, necklaces, tiny dolls, beaded ornaments and even laptop covers, all handcrafted of silk, wool, mohair or hessian, a jute-like fabric. The pieces are adorned with what the artists draw from their everyday surroundings, including livestock, fish and botanicals.

Each whimsical piece is infused with threads of joy and humour, reflecting the durability and optimism of people who live in an area devastated by HIV and by poverty, Scott said.

“There is desperation and tragedy, but it is overshadowed by this great joy and celebration of life. Their resilience to me is amazing and a good deal of it has come from the Keiskamma Trust. Stitch by stitch it brings their world together, tells their stories and stitches their world into ours.”

Keiskamma is also inviting the public, as part of International Week activities, to a tapestry-making session Jan. 30 at the TELUS Centre.

Following a short presentation about Keiskamma Canada, people are invited to try their hand at adding a few stitches to a communal tapestry inspired by the work of the South African artists. “We want to tell our story as an organization and tapestry is a great way of storytelling,” said Lynn Sutankayo, a Keiskamma Canada board member who also works in the U of A Faculty of Arts as a Community Service-Learning partnership co-ordinator.

“International Week is a great way to launch what we consider a large-scale community art project,” Sutankayo said. “We hope it will catch on and that people want to stitch.”

The tapestry workshop runs from 2:30 to 3:50 p.m. in Room 236/238 at the TELUS Centre. An exhibit of Keiskamma tapestries, including the communal work in progress, can also be viewed at the McMullen Gallery in the University Hospital from March 29 to June 3, 2013.