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’s shown below on exhibition in Grahamstown in 2005 along with the Democracy Tapestry which was included in the exhibition at the FADA gallery, UJ.
A little about the Democracy Tapestry
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 on the left (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.
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 Isenheim, 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.
With the Eastern Cape communities suffering at the height of the HIV/AIDS epidemic, this theme resonated strongly. 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 constructed as a series of hinged panels—fourteen in all—that open to create three different configurations.
The central panels of the Keiskamma altar piece when closed, depict a widow mourning her husband in the central panel, with on her right children orphaned by AIDS and on her left, a grandmother who will step in to look after the parentless children. In the wing panels are two elders from the Hamburg community, one in the red Methodist church uniform and the other with a white shawl.
The predella panel at the bottom remains the same in all 3 views. It acts as a supporting plinth and depicts the funeral of Dumile Paliso, 35.
Grunewald Isenheim Altarpiece (1512-1516) Detail of Christ in the predella panel showing sores like those of sufferers from St Anthony’s Fire
Second level of panels
From the mood of grief, loss and mourning in the closed panels, the doors open to a riot of joyful colour and abundance . The Isenheim traditional biblical scenes of Annunciation, Nativity and Resurrection are envisioned as a new order where suffering is no more. In the centre panel shows the meeting of Christian and traditional Xhosa rituals. At the top worshippers meet outside a church while below a bull is slaughtered, a ritual that connotes celebration and thanksgiving. 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 am image of Hamburg mapped in a circle. The footsteps forming prayers in the sand all symbolize a vision of hope and new life.
The final layer of panels
The final set of doors is opened to reveal life-size black and white photographs of local Hamburg grandmothers with their grandchildren. These strong women are the backbone of the community and of families as they step into heading up households and bringing up orphans. 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.
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, could attract visitors who contribute to the local economy, so could this extraordinary work, act as a drawcard to the small village of Hamburg. It is certainly something making a special trip to see.