Saturday, May 26, 2007

Despair and hope
the Keiskamma altarpiece

It takes something like a miracle to find hope when an unknown, always deadly disease with no known cure kills off the young, the brightest, the most promising, the most hard working members of a community. Without warning, hope seems gone. We know this trauma in San Francisco; we watched our gay male community decimated by the "gay plague" in the 1980s. Hamburg, an isolated fishing village in the Eastern Cape [of Good Hope] province of South Africa knows this; AIDS has ripped away its young men and women, leaving mostly the very old and the very young. Fully thirty percent of the remaining population carries the HIV virus. The South African government has only recently bowed to pressure from AIDS patients and the religious community to provide retroviral drugs to the infected.

The Keiskamma Altarpiece is a fabric art creation that documents and seeks to encourage hope in the face of such overwhelming, meaningless death. Inspired and mid-wifed by doctors from an AIDS clinic, using the form of a late medieval German altarpiece responding to the great European plague, this extraordinary creation of the women of Hamburg has been on display at Grace Cathedral for the last couple of months. Unhappily for local readers, the last day of this showing is Tuesday, May 29. From San Francisco it goes on to Seattle, Cambridge, MA, and Washington, DC.

I got a look at this very moving creation last week in the company of a class of rapt third graders. Though their teachers has clearly tried to explain about South Africa, the thought of such massive death inspired a little anxiety.

This image from the project's website shows the exterior panels. The altarpiece is 13 feet high and 22 feet wide, fabric and beads hung on a wooden frame.

It is fragile. Docents move the panels in tandem and deliberately -- the fabric could tear if shifted incautiously. In these pictures, I want to share details -- you'll have to see it yourself to get the full impression.

A widow wearing the traditional mourning costume occupies the central exterior panel where tradition would place the crucified Christ. A grandmother is seated beside her.

On the other side, stand some of the many orphans of Hamburg.

When the hinged panels are opened, a middle layer reveals a vision of resurrection, of Eden recovered. The Keiskamma river teems with fish as it flows around the village into the Indian Ocean.

But the dominant figure in Hamburg's Eden, taking up all of one panel and part of another, is Vuysile Funda, known as Gaba, an actual living resident who clearly plays some Shamanic role in the local community.

Gaba is thought to receive visitations from God each day -- he goes to the edge of the sea and stomps out patterns in the sand while wearing a ceremonial red garment.

One of the docents on the day we visited made a point of telling us that they'd asked a woman from Hamburg who visited Grace whether there were any religions in the village in addition to the several Protestant Christian denominations pictured. She said "no." I assume the question was meant to discover whether Islam had reached into that bit of the Eastern Cape. But the depiction of Gaba tells me that everyone may be Christian, but that Christianity in South Africa has successfully found a syncretistic synthesis with existing animisms. And good for that Christianity -- anything else is just colonialism.

The third, furthest interior, panels shows life size photos of the living community of Hamburg, a society whose most visible members are grandmothers raising orphans left by the disease.

These living people are flanked with beaded "ghost trees" set in a shadowy landscape on which are sewn the names of some of the dead.

The base of the altarpiece, the predilla, remains visible at all times. It depicts the death and funeral of an actual AIDS casualty, Dumile Paliso, who died in 2002. Here his body is covered with sores. These scenes were envisioned by the women sewers themselves.

Dumile's funeral.

The hearse from Nontsner's Undertakers delivers the body.

Dumile is buried in the already crowded village cemetery.

This imposing figure, who occupies all of one of the side panels on exterior of the altarpiece is Susan Paliso, Dumile's mother.

If you have any chance, do make time to see this extraordinary response to hope interrupted, hope reasserted.


Jane R said...

Jan, breathtaking, thanks so much; I've put up a short item on my blog referring readers here. Will try to see the Washington or Cambridge end of the journey.

Will be in Bay Area a bit in June, hope to see you, will write R (don't have your e-mail handy) to see if we can connect.

Ed said...

This blew me away! I'm so glad you posted it, or I might never have known how spectacular the altarpiece is. I also linked to you, for what it's worth.

I've been lurking here, btw, ever since MadPriest linked to your equally amazing piece on Ruby; just want to thank you for all your great stuff.

Grandmère Mimi said...

It's a near miracle that such beauty can spring forth from the hands of those who have experienced the tragic death of loved ones.

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