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South African altarpiece begins U.S. tour in Chicago


The Keiskamma Altarpiece  

[St. James Cathedral, Chicago]  The Keiskamma Altarpiece, created by 120 women of the South African coastal town of Hamburg as a message of hope for people affected by HIV/AIDS, was unveiled in Chicago's St. James Cathedral August 20 as part of a special Sunday Eucharist service.

The colorful 13 by 22 feet altarpiece, which was installed in front of the church's main altar, is constructed of intricate embroidery, appliqué, beadwork, and photography, and took more than six months to complete.

The August 20 service included South African music and a blessing of the altarpiece. Officials from the Consulate of the Republic of South Africa, South Africans who are living in or visiting the Chicago area, and three women related to the project attended the service: Dr. Carol Hofmeyr, director of the Keiskamma Trust; Eunice Nombulelo Mangwane, known as Hamburg's AIDS counselor; and Jackie Sidwell Downs who worked on the project for three years.

Following the service, Hofmeyr gave a talk about the project, which will be repeated at 6:30 p.m. on Tuesday, August 22.

Free to the public, the altarpiece will be on display every day of the week from 12-4 p.m. through September 20. (except Saturday, August 26, and Saturday, September 9).

Prior to its arrival in Chicago, the altarpiece was on display at St. James Cathedral, Toronto, during the Sixteenth International AIDS Conference. After closing in Chicago, it will travel to the University of California in Los Angeles where it will be hosted for several months by the UCLA AIDS Institute, the UCLA Department of World Arts and Culture, and the UCLA Fowler Museum of Art.

Named for the Keiskamma River valley in South Africa's largely rural Eastern Cape Province, the altarpiece replicates the configuration of the famous Isenheim Altarpiece in Colmar, France, painted in 1515 by Matthias Grünewald as commissioned by the Monastery of St. Antony in Alsace.

The Antonine monks treated victims of an epidemic that wreaked extensive suffering and death on Renaissance Europe as has AIDS in Africa. Like its counterpart in Colmar, the Keiskamma Altarpiece reveals different scenes as multiple hinged panels are opened outward, portraying in vivid colors and narrative details the stories of the Hamburg community's struggles, hopes and celebrations in thread, fabric and beads, rendered by the hands of the women and a few men in the community.

To make the altar, the women learned new embroidery techniques, particularly stump-work, which involves layering the thread over cotton batting to create a three-dimensional effect. In making this work, the 120-plus community artists hoped to draw a parallel between AIDS and other diseases that seemed hopeless and now no longer exist, thereby offering hope to people living with HIV and AIDS. The artists also 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 have had to deal with terrible afflictions.

The installation of the Keiskamma Altarpiece in Chicago has been hosted by St. James Cathedral, the Episcopal Diocese of Chicago, and the Diocesan AIDS Taskforce, with funding made possible primarily through the generosity of philanthropist Michael Leppen, a member of the Cathedral parish.

Further information about the Keiskamma Altarpiece is available at:

Media contact: Eileen Harakal, 312-315-2910, email: