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Art News

South African AIDS Art

The Keiskamma Altarpiece at St. James Cathedral pays tribute to victims of the AIDS epidemic and brings art back into the church

by Eileen Jeng

The Keiskamma Altarpiece serves as a religious piece as well as a contemporary work of art. It depicts the AIDS epidemic in Hamburg, South Africa. It is a symbol of hope and celebration for loved ones. Carol Brown, the director and curator of the Durban Art Gallery in South Africa, describes the altarpiece as “a contemporary icon of how the human spirit can rise above adversity and create art of enduring strength and beauty.” Standing 13 feet high and 22 feet wide, it is a work of embroidery, beadwork, and life-size photography. The Keiskamma Altarpiece was unveiled to the Chicago community on August 20th and was on display at 65 E. Huron until September 20th.

This triptych altarpiece is named after the Keiskamma River valley on South Africa’s eastern coast. The AIDS epidemic hit this small fishing village sometime in the 1980s, and, for decades after, the issue was silenced and not acknowledged. Six years ago, Dr. Carol Hofmeyr and her husband, Justus, moved to Hamburg, and in a short time established the first AIDS hospice and treatment center, where patients get life-sustaining drugs from President Bush’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR). “This was a transformative event," says Jessica Abell, Exhibit Manager of the Keiskamma Altarpiece Project. "100% of the community gets tested for HIV. 65% of the adult population has the virus.”

According to Brown, as part of “a unique form of communal therapy,” Dr. Hofmeyr was going to teach embroidery to the unemployed women in the community, and employing the exceptional skills of over a hundred women and Dr. Hofmeyr’s vision, they created their version of the Bayeux Tapestry, which originally depicted events associated with the Norman Conquest of England during the mid-11th century. This tapestry, which preceded the Keiskamma Altarpiece, is devoted to South Africa’s Eastern Cape history through the end of apartheid. Following the success of this tapestry, Dr. Hofmeyr created the idea of the Keiskamma Altarpiece. It is their version of the Isenheim altarpiece by Matthias Grüenwald, which, during the early 16th century, was in the Monastery of St. Anthony, where monks cared for dying Germans.

After many discussions, they planned the adaptation of the altarpiece. Community members from the Keiskamma area made a preliminary set of drawings for the cloth panel, and in only six months the group of women and several men completed the tapestry.

Like the Isenheim altarpiece that depicted an epidemic of ergot poisoning, the Keiskamma altarpiece functioned similarly for the community of Hamburg. Dr. Hofmeyr told Brown that the women needed “their own altarpiece -- to commemorate their determination to prevail in the face of AIDS, the worst plague in modern history.”

The altarpiece differs aesthetically from the lsenheim in several ways. First, it has two sets of doors. Instead of seeing Christ with his wounds and a saint on each side of the door, two women are mourning in traditional garb in the unopened Keiskamma altarpiece. Leginah Mapuma is on the right and Susan Paliso, whose son Dumile passed away at 35 years old, is on the left. Dumile is depicted on the predella, the bottom panel. His body is covered with red sores. Abell says, “His death is like a turning point [for Hamburg], like how Ryan White, the 8-year-old boy, was for the US.” In the middle panel, a widow, who is surrounded by orphans, chooses to remain anonymous.

When the first set of panels is open, Vuyisile Funda, known in the village as Gaba, is depicted in the middle with his red dress. He is making huge fleeting patterns in the sand. A video of his dune drawings also plays in the back of the church. On the left panel, there is a tree of life. On the right, a bird’s eye view of Hamburg. Abell says that the stitched names are the names of the people who worked on the tapestry, whereas the beaded ones are the names of those who passed away.

When the altarpiece is fully open, the same village women who appear on the front panels appear also in this life-size photograph. These are portraits of the grandmothers and grandchildren orphaned by AIDS.

Abell explains that currently there are two fundraising goals: first, to sustain the Hofmeyr funds so they do not run out of money with which to buy life-sustaining drugs, and second, to open a community center in the Keiskamma region. In fact, there was no space big enough to put it together in Hamburg.

Abell says that the response in Chicago has been positive. Most see it as a big crisis. But, she still thinks that the word of the altarpiece is not out.

According to Brooks, 75-100 people came in everyday, totaling about 2000 visitors -- not that many considering the number of people who live in the city of Chicago. Now the altarpiece is headed back to the Fowler Museum at UCLA. Abell says, “They are trying to find 5-6 cities to host it.”

When asked if the Keiskamma Altarpiece will give visitors the same effect within museum walls as it does in a church, Brooks says “It will be seen at its best and richest in an environment of a faith community, but certainly it is available to everyone regardless of their spiritual point of view.”

Abell agrees: “We wouldn’t want [the art] to be in a gallery or museum. We would rather it be in a church. The altarpiece does serve as both a secular and religious piece. A lot of art has moved away from religion. Just look at DaVinci’s Last Supper or Michelangelo’s Sistine Ceiling. They were commissioned by churches.“

The Keiskamma Altarpiece is funded by the National Arts Festival South Africa, the National Department of Arts and Culture South Africa, the Eastern Cape Department of Sport, Recreation, Arts, and Culture and First Rand Bank South Africa.