Keiskamma Art Project II: Tourist potential for Hamburg?

I posted a blog some time back about an exhibition in August 2018 of works from the Keiskamma Art Project at the FADA gallery, University of Johannesburg Bunting Rd campus.  Having learnt something about the project I turned to looking at other works which were not included in this exhibition. One such work is the renowned Keiskamma Altarpiece based on Grünewald’s Isenheim Altarpiece.  It is shown below on exhibition in Grahamstown in 2005 along with the Democracy Tapestry which was included in the exhibition at the FADA gallery, UJ.  Both these works are currently on show at Constitution Hill until 25th March 2023 at a retrospective exhibition of the Keiskamma Art Project entitled Umaf’ evuka, nje ngenyanga/Dying and Rising as the Moon Does.

Installation of the Keiskamma Art Project’s Democracy Tapestry (2004) and the Keiskamma Altarpiece (2005) in the Allan Webb Dining Hall at Rhodes University during the National Arts Festival in Grahamstown in 2005. Source: Nick Stavrakis, image 67 in Schmahmann The Keiskamma Art Project 2016 page 67

A little about the Democracy Tapestry (also on show at the Constitution Hill Exhibition)

Keiskamma Tapestry, Parliament buildings on loan from Standard Bank

The Democracy Tapestry 2004 is about 50 m long and comprises 14 narrative panels. It is now in the collection of the Witwatersrand Art Museum [WAM].  While some panels (as below) speak of the benefits and improvements to standards of living post 1994, other panels refer to the failure of service delivery and a break down in law and order. Like the 2004 Keiskamma Tapestry seen above (some 120 m in length and on loan to the Houses of Parliament), the Democracy Tapestry is modelled on the 11th Century Bayeux tapestry.   However like all the Keiskamma Art Project works, while the genre, practice and technique might be inspired by an artwork from history and from Europe, removed in time and place, the context and content is always local. 

A panel from the Democracy Tapestry 2004 which refers to improved health care. Source:

Keiskamma Altarpiece 2005, mixed media, 4.15 × 6.8 m 

The Keiskamma Altarpiece drew inspiration from Matthias Grünewald’s massive and highly complex 16th C altarpiece commissioned by St. Anthony’s Monastery in France for the high altar of their chapel. St Anthony’s functioned as a hospital specializing in the treatment of the disease known as St Anthony’s fire, (now known as ergotism), a leprosy-like illness which caused sores and gangrene and a very slow death.  The overall themes of the 3 openings of the panels in the Keiskamma Altarpiece show:

  • in the closed panels: the grief and suffering caused by deaths from the HIV/AIDS pandemic
  • in the first opening the different forms of religious and spiritual intervention to overcome this fear and hardship
  • and in the second and final opening the final resilience and hope for a cure.

The Isenheim Altarpiece shows a similar overall message but with different iconography.  

  • in the closed panels: the Crucifixion of Christ with Saints on either side
  • the first opening: the Annunciation, Nativity and Resurrection 
  • the second opening: St Anthony, patron saint of the Monastery who cared for the sick. along with scenes from his life  

The theme of the 16th Century plague resonated strongly with the Eastern Cape communities who were suffering at the height of the HIV/AIDS epidemic.  And also on a more positive and affirming level, the artists drew a parallel between AIDS and other diseases that were once terminal but that are now no longer a threat. This was particularly apposite as, when this altarpiece was started in early 2005, anti-retroviral drugs were still being withheld by the South African government. As the policy changed, people gained access to the drugs and their health improved. Carol talks about ‘the Lazarus effect’  being ‘stitched into’ this massive work.  Like Grünewald’s, the altarpiece is the same size and format,  constructed as a series of hinged panels—fourteen in all—that open to create three different configurations.  

Isenheim Altarpiece 1512-1516 by Matthias Grünewald: closed panels


Keiskamma Altarpiece: Closed panels

The central panels of the Keiskamma Altarpiece when closed, depict a widow, with, on her left, children orphaned by AIDS, and on her right grandmothers who step in to look after the parentless children. In the wing panels are two elders from the Hamburg community: Leginah Mapuma, a widow, in red Anglican church garments, and on the right Susan Paliso. Susan’s son, Dumile, died at the age of 35 in 2002 of an AIDS-related illness. Susan took care of her orphaned grandson Lihle.     

Closed panels of the Keiskamma Altarpiece
Represented in the predella at the bottom of the altarpiece is Dumile Paliso in hospital, his funeral and burial. These scenes remain visible when the altarpiece is opened.
Detail of hospital scene on left of image on the predella panel makes reference to both the Christ figure in the predella of the Isenheim Altarpiece (below) and the sufferer of St Anthony’s plague (2nd below) from the right panel of the 2nd opening of the Isenheim Altarpiece
Detail of the Christ figure on the predella panel in the Isenheim Altarpiece with body sores referencing  the effects of St Anthony’s fire or ergotism. The shocking immediacy of the image of the Christ figure in this Lamentation scene (and in the Crucifixion), is unusual in the history of Western art as it shows Christ’s body inflicted with lacerations and  wounds suggesting that Christ identified with and understood the suffering of those afflicted with “St Anthony’s fire” (subsequently identified as ergotism).
Detail of a sufferer of St Anthony’s Fire from the bottom left of the right hand panel of the last opening of the Isenheim Altarpiece. It was this image which sparked the idea for the representation of  the figure in hospital in the Keiskamma Altarpiece predella. (Carol Hofmeyr in a What’s App conversation 29/11/2022)
The Temptations of St Anthony depicted in the right panel of the 2nd opening of the Isenheim Altarpeice. The details from above is seen in the bottom right corner Source: 

Isenheim Altarpiece First Opening: Annunciation, Nativity and Resurrection
Keiskamma Altarpiece 1st  opening: Prayer, hope and regeneration

From the mood of grief, loss and mourning in the closed panels, the doors open to a riot of joyful colour and abundance .  The traditional biblical scenes of Annunciation, Nativity and Resurrection are envisioned as  a new order in the Keiskamma Altarpiece where suffering is no more.  The centre panel of the Keiskamma Altarpiece shows the meeting of Christian and traditional Xhosa rituals. At the top left of the centre panel worshippers are depicted meeting outside a church while below a bull is slaughtered, a ritual that connotes celebration and thanksgiving. In huge scale on the right of the central panel is an image of Vuyisile Funda known by the community as Gaba. A holy man he went to the beach every morning and ran patterns into the sand on the dunes with his footprints. For him it was a way of worshipping and giving thanks and giving expression to the messages he received from God. His giant footprints are embroidered in the right panel as well.    The footsteps forming prayers in the sand all symbolize a vision of hope and new life.    In the left panel birds and butterflies fly above a lush landscape where cattle graze and on the right fish (traditionally a symbol of Christ) surround an image of Hamburg mapped in a circle. 

Isenheim Altarpiece: Second Opening

In the central panel, are Nikolaus Hagenauer’s wooden painted and gilded sculptures of St Anthony seated with Church Fathers Augustine and Jerome on left and right. A canopy of gilded and painted wood carved tracery is above their heads. Scenes from the life of St Anthony are depicted in the side panels

Keiskamma Altarpiece: Second opening. 

The grandmothers have stepped in and the abundance and beauty of the Hamburg landscape celebrates those who have died.

 The final set of panels  is opened to reveal life-size black and white photographs of  local Hamburg grandmothers with their grandchildren: Susan Paliso and Lihle on the left; AIDS counsellor Eunice Mangwane with 3 children and Carolin Nyongo with her 4 dependents. These strong women are the backbone of the community and of families as they step into heading up households and bringing up orphaned family members. They are framed and protected by a bower of 3 dimensional representations of Coral and Acacia trees made with wire beadwork. This motif echoes Grünewald’s wooden lattice work. In the wing panels, the landscape of the Keiskamma river and mountains is shown, inscribed with the names of the artists as well as many relatives who had died of AIDS.  They have been laid to rest and are at peace in the eternal present of the afterlife -represented by the natural features of the Hamburg landscape. 

For more context see video: Art of Healing  For more detailed discussion on this fascinating work see Brenda Schmahmann’s 2016 monograph on The Keiskamma Art Project. 

Tourism potential for Hamburg

The Keiskamma Altarpiece has traveled to England, Canada, and throughout the United States and has been shown at various venues in South Africa. Although purchased in 2012 by GT Ferreira of Rand Merchant Bank, the work has been back in Hamburg since 2014.  Just as the Owl House in a small village like Nieu Bethesda near Graaff Reinet in the Karoo, attracts visitors who contribute to the local economy, so this extraordinary work, and the entire Keiskamma Art Project, acts as a drawcard to the small village of Hamburg.  It is certainly something worth making a special trip to see.       

Recent Posts Categories