The Keiskamma Altarpiece

Yesterday I viewed an inspiring example of community-produced art from Africa, currently on tour in the USA, the Keiskamma Altarpiece. Sewn and beaded by more than one hundred thirty women and several men in the tiny South African seaside village of Hamburg, it commemorates the AIDS epidemic that almost destroyed the village and the brave ones who took upon themselves to do something about it. The creation of this work, with its intense community organizing, inspired everyone in Hamburg who had previously avoided HIV tests to get them and get treatment if needed. This detail, from the left half of the base of the piece, shows the suffering, death and funeral of an AIDS patient, Dumile Paliso, whose mother, Susan, is depicted on a panel below.

Inspired by the Isenheim Altarpiece, created by Matthias Grunewald during the early 1500’s to celebrate the deliverance of the Alsace Lorraine region from the ergot fungus plague known then as St. Anthony’s fire, the Keiskamma Altarpiece was born from an idea by Dr. Carol Hofmeyr, who, with her physician husband, founded and ran Hamburg’s first and only AIDS hospice and treatment center. Carol Hofmeyr also holds a degree in fine arts, and this was her way of combining her areas of expertise to serve the community. Her husband built the enormous frame that holds the three layer fiber artwork. This detail, the right half of the base, shows the burial of the dead.

Here is the whole base as one piece.

Like the Isenheim Altarpiece, the Keiskamma (named after the river that flows through Hamburg) when it is closed shows a cross at the center, but instead of Christ, there stands a Xhosa woman dressed in mourning for her husband, and instead of Mary Magdalene and St. John, she is surrounded by the many orphaned children of AIDS victims and the grandparents and other older members of the community who are called upon to look after them.

On either side of the central cross, instead of saints, local women who have lent their support to the surviving family members are depicted. Above, Susan Paliso, dressed in the formal style of Methodist church-going women in Hamburg…

…and on the other side, Leginah Mapuma, dressed in the formal dress of Anglican church members.

Inside the first set of doors of the altar, the dancing prophet Gaba seeks inspiration from God upon the sand dunes.

On the door to the right of Gaba is the wild fig tree, shelter and food to the people of Hamburg village.

On the door to the left of Gaba is the great spiral of life, on land and on sea.

A detail of the fish in the panel above, showing the beadwork.

On the innermost panels, the Keiskamma river flows beside the land outside of Hamburg where the dead are buried. The trees are translucent, like ghosts, suggesting that entire family trees have disappeared.

And yet, at the same time, the river and trees suggest survival of adversity, and the continuity of life into eternity.