Faith and Art: The Keiskamma Altarpiece

Monday, December 07, 2009

The following review is by Lauren Palte, painter, art student and all-round genius

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.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Ergot poisoning? Isn't ergot what LSD is made from?

6:50 PM  
Blogger Robert Sloon said...

Ergot contains no lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD) but instead contains ergotamine, which is used to synthesize lysergic acid, an analog of and precursor for synthesis of LSD. Moreover, ergot sclerotia naturally contain some amounts of lysergic acid. From Wikipedia.

So yes. But the actual disease was quite frightening, gangrene and convulsions.

7:31 PM  
Anonymous bang up, say yeah! said...

i tried LSD for the first time when i was sixteen. i enoyed it.

I took a walk alone to a cricket pitch in the dead of night to meet at the score board with friend.

It became apparent to us that a rational history is impossible.

How do we speak of history in a time of madness?

How do we speak of then, when now is as much incomprehensible?

How do we live when, when now is, as of yet, to come?

To live soon, to anticipate living, to long to live, to live to long, to live too long.

To sleep: perchance to dream.

To grunt and sweat under a weary life.

In front is only yesterday, behind waiting; tomorrow .

8:51 PM  
Blogger francisunderwood said...


to hear, \

about your bad trip

must have been

terribly boring

being you



1:36 PM  
Blogger francisunderwood said...

Well the moon is broken
And the sky is cracked
Come on up to the house
The only things that you can see
Is all that you lack
Come on up to the house

All your cryin don't do no good
Come on up to the house
Come down off the cross
We can use the wood
Come on up to the house

Come on up to the house
Come on up to the house
The world is not my home
I'm just a passin' thru
Come on up to the house

There's no light in the tunnel
No irons in the fire
Come on up to the house
And your singin lead soprano
In a junkman's choir
You gotta come on up to the house

Does life seem nasty, brutish and short
Come on up to the house
The seas are stormy
And you can't find no port
Come on up to the house
There's nothin in the world

there's nothin in the world
that you can do
you gotta come on up to the house
and you been whipped by the forces
that are inside you
come on up to the house
well you're high on top
of your mountain of woe
come on up to the house
well you know you should surrender
but you can't let go
you gotta come on up to the house

1:57 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Make Art Stop Aids? Are you fucking kidding? Are these guys fucking retarded??

10:05 PM  

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