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Testament in tapestry
South African altarpiece depicts horror and hope of AIDS epidemic


The Keiskamma Altarpiece depicts the Annunciation, Crucifixion, Resurrection and other events of the New Testament from the viewpoint of people from the Keiskamma region who live in the midst of AIDS, poverty and other hardships. It has ended a month-long showing at St. James Cathedral, Chicago, and will now be displayed at churches in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle, New York and Washington in coming months.  

Eunice Nombulelo Mangwane shares her experiences as an AIDS counselor in Hamburg, South Africa, at St. James Cathedral.  
An art project launched in a small South African town is giving North Americans an appreciation for the scope of the AIDS epidemic and the resilience of Africans who cope daily with the loss of family members and the resulting turmoil in their communities.

The Keiskamma Altarpiece, a tapestry of embroidery and beadwork by 120 women in the coastal town of Hamburg, was viewed first at the 16th International AIDS Conference in Toronto and recently at St. James Cathedral in Chicago. It is on a year-long U.S. tour sponsored by St. James Cathedral, the University of California Los Angeles AIDS Institute and the Artists for a New South Africa.

The images of hope displayed on the panels are more the vision than the reality in Hamburg, a South African community where a third of the 3,000 residents are HIV-positive and 90 percent are unemployed, Sidwell Downs, an artist with the Keishamma Art Project, said in Chicago.

Eunice Mangwane, a Hamburg AIDS counselor who lost her daughter to AIDS, sang You Must Never Give Up a cappella at the Chicago cathedral when the altarpiece was received. She asked those present “just to remember in a small village, a village where there is no work, that there are people who will pray for them and who love them.”

AIDS Institute Associate Director Edwin Bayrd, who is coordinating the tour along with David Gere, director of the Center for Art/Global Health at UCLA, also spoke of the community’s faith and resolution. “They could have easily surrendered to what was happening to them,” Bayrd said. “But the women in the community fought back.”

Named for the Keiskamma River Valley in southeastern South Africa, the work, measuring 13 feet tall and 22 feet wide, is meant to commemorate those who died of AIDS and to serve as a statement of hope by people living with HIV/AIDS, their friends and families and those suffering from other serious diseases.

The altarpiece depicts the Annunciation, Crucifixion, Resurrection and other events of the New Testament from the viewpoint of people from the Keiskamma region who live in the midst of AIDS, poverty and other hardships.

Teams of women transformed stenciled designs into embroidery. The first of three layers of panels depicts a widow in traditional Xhosa mourning attire with an elderly woman and children, representing those orphaned by AIDS and the grandparents who care for them.

The second layer presents a vision of hope, redemption and restoration. Images in vibrant colors depict trees, birds, cattle, fish and traditional life and worship in the village. The third and innermost layer portrays resurrection through the wisdom of the elderly and the hope for new generations.  Life-size photographs printed on canvas show three local grandmothers and their orphaned grandchildren.

Each layer is dense with embroidery, appliqué and beadwork, with the last layer a combination of sculptural wire beadwork and photographs.  To make the altarpiece, the women had to learn new embroidery techniques, particularly stump-work, which involves layering the thread over cotton batting to create a three-dimensional effect.

The artists said they wanted to show that, although they feel cut off and alone in their suffering, they are part of the whole of humanity, past and present, who has had to deal with terrible afflictions.

California churches next

On Sept. 20, the altarpiece left Chicago for UCLA, where it will be unveiled for World AIDS Day on Dec. 1. From Dec. 3 through early January 2007, it will be displayed at two areas churches — All Saints Episcopal Church in Pasadena is one possible venue. Then it will return to UCLA as the centerpiece of an art exhibition, Make Art/Stop AIDS, at the Fowler Museum.

That exhibit will run Jan. 7 to March 11. Next the altarpiece will be installed at Grace Episcopal Cathedral in San Francisco for the 50 days of Easter. Possible venues after that include St. Mark’s Cathedral in Seattle, the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York and Washington National Cathedral.