The Keiskamma Altarpiece forms part of the NOT ALONE exhibition at the Iziko Good Hope Gallery. It is a part of the international project Make Art/ Stop Aids and runs until 31 January 2010.
Robert Sloon once pointed out to me a similarity between being an artist and a preacher: both require a lot of faith. The role of artist or preacher is often to inspire belief in something whose outcomes or effects are not always visible. The artist however might not always be so successful: plagued by questions about the potential of artmaking to be truly meaningful. It is indeed difficult to justify to oneself the privilege of making art in the difficult social, political and economic situation in South Africa.
For this reason, viewing the Keiskamma Altarpiece at the Slave Lodge was a profound experience. The altarpiece was made by women in Hamburg in the Eastern Cape as a part a community initiative: an embroidery project that sets out to empower people with the skills to produce art and craftwork, a forum to generate income and is a project interwoven with healthcare and education around HIV/Aids. The project forms part of the Keiskamma Trust, initiated by Dr (and artist) Carol Hofmeyr in 2002. Part of the Trust is a health initiative that provides ARVS to the many HIV sufferers in the community.
The presence of the Altarpiece on the Make Art/ Stop Aids exhibition is an apt one. The exhibition intends to draw attention to “capacity for international solidarity to lessen the impact of the AIDS epidemic and to the importance of access to effective treatment”. The narrative of the Keiskamma Altarpiece becomes a starting point to incite discourse on the subject of HIV / Aids and in particular the need for education and treatment in the rural areas in this country. It also acts as a powerful testament to the possibilities of art making, education and communication. The workshops where work on the altarpiece took place became a safe space for discussions around HIV / Aids.
The Altarpiece was inspired by Matthias Grünewald’s Isenheim Altarpiece of the 15th Century. The Isenheim altarpiece was painted for a hospice where the patients were dying of ergot poisoning, caused by a simple grain fungus. At the time, the causes of this inflection, then known as St. Anthony’s fire, were unknown, similar to the plight of those in Hamburg who were unaware of the Aids epidemic prior to the education provided as a result of the Keiskamma Trust.
It is interesting that religious allegory is used as a metaphor for the plight of the everyday. It allows those involved to transcend the harsh realities of the physical in the belief that something higher might sustain them.
In the Keiskamma Altarpiece, a woman, widowed by Aids replaces Grünewald’s Christ on the Cross. Unlike Mary Magdalene and St John who look on to the death of Christ, the orphaned children in the Keiskamma piece surround this figure. The Keiskamma replaces the Saints and martyrs with ordinary people who are left to face the indictment of Aids. However, unlike the darkness and despair of Grunewald, the Keiskamma piece seems to radiate bright colour and hope.
The Keiskamma project reminds of the teaching centres in South Africa that were established during the Apartheid years. Such centres sought to find a space for art to incite social change and provide opportunity for people of the community. A fitting example was the Rorke’s Drift Centre, established in 1962 in rural KwaZulu Natal: also a space that intersected art, religion and illness. It began as Evangelist Lutheran Church Art and Craft Centre in 1962 whose program was to prepare women students as art and craft advisors to work with patients in hospitals. The Swedish missionaries, Peder and Ulla Gowenuis who began the centre stressed the importance of a creative outlet. As Gowenius put it: "The possibility of expressing oneself in art is like giving language to the speechless. A first step towards freedom. Without language we are powerless."
The reason that I make this comparison is that the Keiskamma project seems to have adopted a successful model established by such centres in creating a space where art education has the potential to inspire faith and incite change. The Keiskamma altarpiece reveals an interesting and powerful space in art making where the artwork becomes a symbol of hope, rather than a place of doubt.