Tamlin Blake in collaboration with Keiskamma Art Project, administered by Spier Arts Trust

Birds are the Timekeepers 

Embroidered tapestry 

1490 x 958 x 35 mm

Courtesy Spier Collection

Tamlin Blake is a South African mixed media artist, deeply interested in what constitutes and underpins everyone’s sense of belonging and identity, especially in a country that constantly asks us to question our cultural links. Her current work explores the making of memories and identity through inherited heirlooms and treasured objects.

A prominent aspect of Blake’s work is her fascination with materials and manipulating new mediums in ways which take them past the merely decorative or prosaic. She was instrumental in developing beading techniques which are now used by various South African artists in collaboration with Qaqambile bead studio in Cape Town.  

Blake’s role as chief curator of Spier Arts Trust, together with her propensity to experiment with new mediums, resulted in a new opportunity to connect artists with embroiderers at Keiskamma Art Project in Hamburg.  

For Blake, handmade crocheted blankets are a family tradition, symbolising warmth, and safety. Mothers and grandmothers make them, using the same set of stitches, imbuing them with a sense of family and value. These persistent threads enfold us in family history, sometimes strong and supportive, but too often they can also be restrictive and stultifying. 

Blake recounts the experience of working on this tapestry with the artists and embroiderers from the Keiskamma Art Project as a humbling and rewarding experience. She used the idea of handmade crocheted blankets as a starting point and shared with the studio, her own family stories. This work depicts the hopes and expectations placed on the shoulders of her two daughters, dressed in family blankets.  

Through a process of workshop and co-creation, the embroiderers eagerly shared stories and histories of their own to incorporate and transform the developing work. The work includes images and symbols representing the stresses of living with inherited values – like forced marriage and gender inequalities – but also brings about the awareness that by embracing change and capitalism, there was a sad loss of traditional knowledge (like the growing and preparing of traditional foods, where to find water in the sand dunes, identifying indigenous berries and making honey beer).  

What does endure though, like those persistent crochet blankets, are the old stories passed down from generation to generation, like how the barking dog can spot a witch and how the birds keep the time. 

Blake’s collaboration set the groundwork for Spier Arts Trust, to sensitively select and invite other artists to work through a process of co-creation, to explore and seek adventure, to share and search – a journey worth taking together.