The Art of Climate Change


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Funded by the government of Flanders, commissioned by WWF South Africa, and created by the Keiskamma Art Project, the magnificent Umlibo tapestry is a community climate change advocacy artwork

Umlibo is an exquisite artwork which tells the story of climate impacts on a small coastal community. Standing at an impressive 2m by 5m, the colourful embroidery is made up of intricate motifs and images which together form a larger picture of lives and landscapes.

It began its life in the tiny rural village of Hamburg in the Eastern Cape, and then received high praise at its unveiling in the centre of Cape Town before being displayed at the South African pavilion at the international climate meeting, COP28, in Dubai.

There, it was lauded by President Cyril Ramaphosa who said that “it contains everything a head of state needs to say about the climate change issue”. He added, “It is the most amazing piece of work and to know that it was done in the deep rural areas of our country makes me very proud.”

The artwork is the handiwork of 43 artists, mainly women, who are part of the Keiskamma Art Project and who live in the vicinity of the tiny town of Hamburg close to the mouth of the Keiskamma River.

It has been named Umlibo in reference to the sprawling pumpkin vine – a symbol of the need to unite and spread the word about the climate crisis. Though beautiful to look at, its work as an advocacy tool is clear to any viewer: it highlights the existential threat climate change poses to human life – particularly for rural people.

With funding from the government of Flanders, WWF South Africa commissioned the artwork as part of a community-based project, and what resulted is a powerful showcase of what happens when science and art come together. The artists who created it, infused it with imagery of their lived experiences: unseasonal rainfall, extreme heat, cold and wind, a decrease in fish stocks and other marine species, anxiety about the future, pollution and negative impacts on physical and mental well-being.

These, along with rural livelihoods ─ like fishing, raising livestock and growing basic crops ─ are brought to life in vivid colour through the meticulous design and execution of the embroidery, portraying hardship and hope in equal measure. If the viewer stands further away from the artwork, a large butterfly motif becomes visible with one wing portraying the challenges of climate change, and the other portraying sustainable livelihoods to build resilience.

This is not the first time that the Keiskamma Art Project and its artists have tackled a topic of global significance. Previous works have included the Keiskamma Altarpiece (2005) and the Keiskamma Guernica (2010), both of which were exhibited internationally and depicted the intergenerational devastation of HIV on communities.

They also made waves with their 120m tapestry that mimics the famous Bayeux Tapestry of Europe, but which tells the history of South Africa from the perspective of those subjugated at the hands of the Europeans.

Umlibo will continue its journey as an advocacy artwork and will then be auctioned off. The money resulting from that will flow back into the work of WWF South Africa, with a portion also flowing back towards sustainable livelihoods in Hamburg.

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