Layered Histories, Woven Stitch By Stitch …

Over the last few years, at St Mary’s School, Waverley in Johannesburg, we have been evaluating our history curriculum, adapting it to meet the needs of the diverse student cohort that we teach while trying to support them in making meaningful connections between the past and present. These are layered histories.

This is no easy feat, and a balance must be struck between how we teach children to value local history and how we encourage them to be global citizens – aware of what is happening beyond their own, sheltered experience of the world.

One of the approaches we have adopted, especially after the COVID-19 pandemic, is to make better use of the community spaces available to us, with the understanding that galleries and museums are rich with opportunities for learning about the arts, heritage and history and which, in turn, support an understanding of society itself.

Educational experiences that make use of these spaces allow children to connect with the idea that we are indeed part of a community, with both a collective history and individual, personal stories.

Inspired by the Reggio-Emilia approach, we are a school that values children’s voices, their ability to ask questions and remain curious about the world around them. At the same time, well-chosen content, carefully scaffolded, is also of key importance when introducing children to a space that carries painful reminders of South Africa’s past.

Exhibition of the Keiskamma Tapestries

Absorbing what the outside world has to offer

Last year we took our Grade 6s on an experimental outing to the Wits Art Museum (WAM) at the University of the Witwatersrand – throwing caution to the wind and insisting that 12-year olds could learn to appreciate spaces designed for adults and still learn something in the process.

This retrospective exhibition foregrounds the traditional oral histories and acts as a loudhailer through which to amplify the stories and experiences by and for the people who are otherwise not heard. Through simultaneous narration and documentation, we hope to foster a safe environment to promote healing and sharing to bring people and diverse communities together.

– Curator and art collector, Azu Nwagbogu

The girls did not disappoint us and the teachers accompanying them were amazed by their thoughtful questions, their reflective documentation and their mature engagement with the artists and pieces exhibited. This year, we decided to take the entire senior primary (in smaller focus groups) to the exhibition of the Keiskamma Tapestries, Umaf ’ evuka, nje ngenyanga / Dying and Rising as the Moon Does, at Constitutional Hill.

These unique art pieces – all handwoven by a community of rural women from Hamburg, Eastern Cape, demonstrate the importance of documenting local history and quintessentially South African stories.

From the COVID-19 tapestry where the girls could see many of their own experiences reflected back at them, to the important role of matriarchs displayed in the Keiskamma Tapestry – the girls engaged with their characteristic enthusiasm, asking countless questions which will nowinform some of our inquiries in history:

There is a lady in that village [Hamburg] that is nearly a hundred-years-old! She was telling a joke in one of the videos and she is obviously important, because she is in three of the tapestries! She made us laugh. I want to know more about her.

– Koena, Grade 4.

The exhibition itself was suitably curated against the stark backdrop of the former prisons – and they offered a message of hope about the transformative power of art and storytelling. Our Grade 5s, in particular, empathised with both the stories woven into the tapestries themselves as well as the experiences of those who were detained in the women’s prison:

If we do not take care of these spaces … if we do not see these tapestries and their stories, we will forget and when we forget we make even worse mistakes than those we made in the past.

– Pakane, Grade 5.

The importance of listening to stories

In her reflection on the exhibition, founder of the project, Dr Carol Hofmeyr, explained the importance of using art as a medium for healing and for creating a means of sustainable livelihood through dignified work for the women in this historically marginalised community.

Even though this is an abstract concept, when looking at the tapestries one of our Grade 6s made a statement that showed her understanding of Hofmeyr’s sentiment:

If we don’t listen to these stories … if we don’t appreciate these stories [even though they aren’t our stories] we will miss out on what we can learn from these women. They are poor. They have so little. They have every reason to be mad and angry and unhappy… and yet they made these beautiful things…by hand!

– Sophie

Their curiosity ignited, our teachers now have a great deal of raw material to draw upon as we collate the girls’ responses and use these as a platform for projects in Art, English and History.