This is the children's book parents will buy for themselves, as much as for their children! Artist/writer, Reviva Schermbrucker, has done what must be a first in the history of publishing - embroidered an advent calendar for children in story form. Two and a half years of inspired, meticulous 'stitching', a stellar reproduction and imagery with a South African flavour makes for an original book that hearkens back to a bygone world where things were not judged merely by their usefulness, but by their charm, wit, quality and integrity. The illustrations have a three dimensional effect. With thread on textile, the shapes are raised and have a toy-like, vital and expressive quality. The electric way in which, for instance, Reviva's Christmas tree grows by the stitch, is pure magic. It is the 'folk history' connected to the craft that comes alive. Each thread becomes real: a tangible link with the picture. And each picture is pulled out from the world of images, and becomes an object where the viewer is part of the physical process of its making. Yet An African Christmas Cloth is also irreverent and contemporary.
Schermbrucker has subverted the traditional advent calendar with its predictable window openings and created priceless embroidered pages stuffed with a plethora of zany European and African Christmas images. It's a visual, tongue-in-cheek South African 'concoction' - a unique fusion between cultures, with authentic South African detailing. There is foam snow and a sweaty watermelon pip-spitting Father Christmas licking melting ice-cream; a snowman made of hail; a Christmas thorn tree, home to yellow weaver birds and their nests, and ornaments of goggas and caterpillars and there are Church of Zion members praying under the trees in the veld, celebrating the coming of Christmas. The details are in the main spreads or in a row of visual footnotes or asides that run in a border under each panel: spot the zebra next to a zebra crossing; connect the pair of Sunday parfaits with the hot veld; a roll of toilet paper and a can opener below a camping scene; a dummy for a baby being carried on its traditionally attired mother's back; an owl, the three kings, bead-decorated clay pots, and a toothbrush and toothpaste below a star-gazing night scene.
The invitation is there for the child or adult reader to wonder why and to dream up their own stories. This extraordinary visual treat is made of only two stitches - chain stitch and satin stitch - or as Reviva calls it 'in-and-out' stitch. With these two stitches the pictures show (as did the African embroideries the National Gallery showed a few years ago) that embroidery can be a surprisingly direct way of communicating.