At long last, more about my visit to the Keiskamma Altarpiece. This astonishing work of art is touring various cities, and its stay in Seattle at St. Mark’s Cathedral has now been extended through November, 2007.

It was made in the village of Hamburg on the coast of eastern South Africa. The vilage had been devasted by the AIDS epidemic, and being so poor and far from larger cities, they had little knowledge and no resources to help them. Dr. Carol Hofmeyer eventually came to the village to treat the AIDS patients and realized that a greater healing was needed for the village as a whole. Inspired by a visit to the Issenheim Altarpiece, created during an epidemic in 16th century Germany, she organized groups to embroider the story of Hamburg and its hopes for the future.

The outer layer shows the village as it was — depressed, with many sick and dying, yet with strong women coping.

Lagena Mapuma and

Keiskamma outer left

Susan Paliso were chosen as representitives of their commuinity.

Keiskamma outer right

This lower section shows the sickness, death, and funeral of  Susan Paliso’s son.
Keiskamma lower

The altarpiece is in three layers, with panel doors opening to reveal new images.

The middle layer shows a vision of hope and redemption.

Here, a local traditional priest runs in the sand each morning with prayers.
Keiskamma middle

I love these wooly sheep!
Keiskamma sheep

The innermost layer shows three of the grandmothers of Hamburg with the grandchildren they are raising because the parents have died or are too sick to care for them.

Keiskamma inner

Their panels are surmounted with three dimensional beadwork depicting local trees and the traditional symbols of the four apostles.

Keiskamma inner beadwork

The grandmothers are flanked by panels showing a joyful landscape, full of life and color.

Keiskamma inner side panel

The words you can see embroidered are the names of villagers who have died of AIDS — the names are found throughout the three layers.

This is an amazing thing to see. It is best to have a docent-guided viewing, as only the outer layer is visible if you go to see it on your own.  It’s done in a combination of techniques on a fabric base:  embroidery, applique, needle-weaving, and beadwork.  Unfortunately, the base fabric is burlap — not the most archival of materials. 

There are hopes to display it in other US cities, such as New York and Washington, DC.  Do see it if you get a chance.