Arts & CultureCampus & City

Art as healing: The McMullen Art Gallery and the Keiskamma Canada Foundation’s “Imbumba”

What: Imbumba at the McMullen Art Gallery
When: Gallery hours are Monday to Friday, 11 a.m. – 7 p.m., Saturday and Sunday, 11 a.m. – 5 p.m.
Where: Main floor (East Entrance) of the University of Alberta Hospital
Admission: Free

The McMullen Art Gallery and the Keiskamma Canada Foundation are proving that art can be a part of the healing process.

Operated by Friends of University Hospitals through their Arts in Healthcare program at the hospital, the McMullen Art Gallery supports the healing of patients staying at the hospital. Recently, the Gallery has partnered with the Keiskamma Trust Art Project for a new exhibit called Imbumba.

Lately we tried to work more with health-related art exhibits with a focus on wellness and community wellness as well,” says McMullen Gallery Director Tyler Sherard. “That’s why the work of the Keiskamma Trust is really, really appropriate to be in here.”

The Keiskamma Trust has been doing work in the rural village of Hamburg in the Eastern Cape of South Africa for the last 20 years. The village experienced decades of racial violence and inequality under the apartheid regime and was also hit hard by the HIV/AIDS pandemic. The Keiskamma Trust Art Project strives to bring hope, confidence, and employment to women in the area by teaching them embroidery skills to create tapestries that reflect their culture and history.

“AIDS has probably killed about a generation; the infection rate in the village is about 40 per cent and the unemployment rate is about 80 per cent,” says Annette Wentworth, founder of the Keiskamma Canada Foundation. “So the art project is very much needed in providing employment to women, mostly.”

Wentworth also explains that the Keiskamma Trust has a policy of not turning anyone away. If someone really needs work, they’ll be taught to embroider by artists.

“They often have no other choice,” she says. “There’s no industries, there’s no shops, there’s hardly a road, no electricity, water is pretty scarce, so it’s a pretty tough situation there.”

After being drawn to the art and stories of the Keiskamma Trust in 2008, Wentworth started the Keiskamma Canada Foundation in Edmonton. The foundation has been supporting the art and health projects of the Trust ever since. With a loyal group of volunteers, they have now had several art shows at the McMullen Art Gallery where art made by people in the village is available to be sold. One year, says Wentworth, one of the women from the village actually came and embroidered at the hospital in front of patients, shared her story about illness and loss, and spoke of the hope that art gave her community.

“It’s a special place for us,” Wentworth says. “The McMullen [Gallery] right away saw the connection with the story of art and health and how people really need more than just medicine to actually heal, and so the relationship just blossomed since then.”

All the art currently in the gallery was made by women and a couple of men from the village. The vibrant tapestries each have a story woven into them: stories from the village that reflect the hardship and oppression that many have faced, and also the hope that Hamburg still has. The voices of the women who made them are free to be shared and are a visible part of the gallery as well.

“It’s a celebration of life in the village, and it’s always been a big part of the art project to encourage the women to tell their stories,” Wentworth says. “The McMullen [Gallery] was really great in allowing the women that did the embroidery to describe the art, so the women’s voices are in the descriptions beside the art: kind of a little story beside each of the embroideries.”

Accompanying caption to the left of the image states: “Boats on the Keiskamma River; Artist: Lindiswa Gedze; Embroiderer: Ncameka Gedze; Embroidery floss and yarn on hessian, 2018

The name of the gallery, Imbumba, is a word in Xhosa meaning “bean seed.” The bean seed symbolizes the cycle of life, restoration, and regrowth that is continually happening in the village. And this idea of a hopeful cycle of growth, of course, is very well situated at the hospital’s McMullen Art Gallery.

“This title about the never-ending cycle of life and regeneration and growth is so applicable to the hospital because we see it all in a day,” Sherard says.

Imbumba runs until April 21, 2019. More information on the Keiskamma Canada Foundation can be found here.

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