The Keiskamma Altarpiece

The Keiskamma Altarpiece is a contemporary icon of how the human spirit can rise above adversity and create art of enduring strength and beauty

Click here to find videos of the Keiskamma Altarpiece on YouTube.

Made by the women of the Keiskamma Art Project, as a message of hope for people who are living in the midst of poverty, AIDS and other hardships The Keiskamma Altarpiece has travelled through North America bringing the story of AIDS and poverty as experienced in the rural South African village Hamburg to a much wider audience in North America.

The Keiskamma Altarpiece uses the form and themes of The Issenheim Altarpiece to depict hope and redemption in the face of the HIV epidemic. It celebrates the strength of grandmothers who bear the responsibility for the children in these times. It stands 4.15 x 6.8 meters. (13.6 x 22.3 feet).

The Keiskamma Altarpiece has taken 130 women and men 7 months to complete. It is similar in form and concept to The Issenheim Altarpiece but uses imagery that is directly applicable to Hamburg and the surrounding villages. The Altarpiece is a triptych of hinged panels.

Understanding the Panels

The Panels closed (Crucifixion Panels)

The crucifixion is depicted from the point of view of people without material resources trying to find meaning in their lives. The somber crucifixion panels show a widow in traditional Xhosa mourning her husband has died of AIDS. On her right are children orphaned by the disease and on her left is an old lady sitting on a bed.

On either side of this central panel are two Hamburg saints’ wise old ladies chosen for this position because of their love for the community. Lagena Mapuma is dressed in a red Methodist church uniform and Susan Paliso with a white shawl.

Open panels (Resurrection)

The doors open to a vision of hope, redemption and restoration. Images of abundant life with trees, birds, spiritual worship and harmonious traditional life are used to illustrate these ideals, and a local prophet who runs prayers in the sand.

Open Panels (Reality)

The final set of doors is opened to reveal life-size black and white photographs of grandmothers with their grandchildren. These photographs were taken by Tanya Jordaan. From the left is Susan Paliso (83) with Lihle (8), Eunice Mangwane (58) is seated in the centre with her grandchildren Akona, Lithemba and Thabo. Caroline Nyongo (47) is holding her youngest grandchild Nomaxabiso (8 months), and is surrounded by the rest of her daughter’s children.

Above these photographs are three dimensional wire bead work, depicting Coral and Acacia trees with the 4 Apostles as seen in the Issenheim altarpiece. Eddie came from streetwires in Cape Town to teach to the women and men in the project this form of beadwork.

The Praella depicts the funeral of Susan Paliso’s son who has died from AIDS. The funeral took place in Hamburg. It is drawn with all the details of a typical Eastern Cape funeral.


Making the Altarpiece

Each layer is dense embroidery, appliqué and beadwork, with the last layer a combination of sculptural wire beadwork and photographs. The women learned new embroidery techniques particularly stump-work.

The Keiskamma Altarpiece began with Carol Hofmeyr collecting images and ideas and presenting them to Noseti Makubalo and the young fine art students Nokupiwe Gedze, Nomfusi Nkani, Cebo Mvubu and Kwanele Ghanto, who live in the village. They drew the Altarpiece up on large panels of material.

Jan Chalmers and Jacky Jezweski came from the UK to teach a technique new to the women. Stump work involves 3-D work, appliqué and overlaying techniques.

The embroiderers worked in groups of ten around each panel. They were supervised by artists Carol Hofmeyr, Jackie Downs and Tanya Jordaan, and managed by Noseti Makubalo, Veronica Mangcangaza and Novuyani Peyi. Once the embroidery and beadwork was completed they were stretched onto doors constructed by the carpentry team managed by Justus Hofmeyr.

Issenheim Altarpiece

Dr Carol Hofmeyr was inspired by The Issenheim Altarpiece; she used it as a starting point for the making of this Altarpiece.

In the 16th century Matthias Grünewald painted the Issenheim Altar piece for a hospice in Germany, where the inmates were dying of ergot poisoning. At that time the disease was painful and incurable. Grünewald’s work shows the crucified figure with all the stigmata of the disease. The crucifixion panels open to show the annunciation, nativity and resurrection. And these in turn open to show statues of saints seated in their health and power.

The Issenheim altarpiece is 6.5 meters wide open and 4.2 meters high. It is displayed in Colmar in Alsace Lorraine. It depicts the suffering and hopes of a society in the throes of an incurable epidemic. In making this work a parallel is drawn between other diseases that seemed hopeless and now no longer exist and this can offer hope to people living with HIV and AIDS and indeed to all of us.

The Keiskamma Altarpiece Exhibited

The Keiskamma Altarpiece is a religious work with a devout message of hope. The work was blessed in a religious service in the Grahamstown Cathedral, as part of the National Arts Festival 2005, and was shown in the Old Jail on Constitution Hill to commemorate National Women’s Day 9 August 2005. On the 2 and 3 November the altarpiece was exhibited at St Francis Church in Parkview and later in May 2006 UJ Art Gallery, Auckland Park, Johannesburg.

The Keiskamma Altarpiece North American Tour

The Keiskamma Altarpiece was of the 12 August 2006 touring in the United States of America. It was Carol Brown of the Durban Art Gallery who having seen the altarpiece at the National Arts Festival brought this major artwork to the attention of David Gere Director of the Centre for Art|Global Health at UCLA and in August 2006 the Keiskamma Altarpiece started its North American Tour beginning at the St James Cathedral in Toronto, Canada.

The exhibition in Toronto coincided with the 16th International AIDS conference. The Altarpiece was unveiled on the 12 August 2006. The ceremony was attended by those responsible for bringing the altarpiece to North America: Edwin Bayrd, Associate Director UCLA Aids Institute, David Gere, Director of the Centre for Art|Global Health at UCLA, Rosemary Muir and The very reverend Dean Douglas Stoute as well as representatives of the press, local dignitaries and many others. Carol Hofmeyr founder of the Keiskamma Trust, Eunice Mangwane AIDS councilor for Hamburg and Jackie Downs, co-coordinator of the Keiskamma Art Project came to Toronto to share stories about the Altarpiece and the women who made it.

The Altarpiece was on display in Toronto for 5 days, on the weekend of the 19 August the Altarpiece was moved to Chicago, Illinois. To be on display in the Cathedral of St James. On the 21 August 2006 the South African Consulate in Chicago together with the St James Cathedral held a party in honor of the Keiskamma Altarpiece and its representatives.

The Keiskamma Altarpiece and its tour caught the attention of the press in Toronto, Canada, Chicago, Illinois and South Africa. Articles and Pictures appeared in The Toronto Sun – Sunday Sun 13 August 2006, The Toronto Star 13 August 2006, The Chicago Sun, 21 August, and The Chicago Tribune 21 August 2006 The Herald, Eastern Cape 23 August 2006 and the Cape Mercury, Cape Town.

The Keiskamma Altarpiece has made its way to UCLA to the Fowler Museum of Art in Los Angeles where it was exhibited for World AIDS day 1 December 2006.

The Altarpiece was on show in San Fancisco, Seattle and Washinton DC. It came back to South Africa via Southwark Cathedral (London, UK) at the end of 2008. It is part of the travelling exhibition Not Alone, an International Initiative of Make Art/Stop AIDS.


The Keiskamma Art Project would like to thank those that made it all possible especially:

National Arts Festival
Department of Arts and Culture
Private Donors and Funders
St James Cathedral Toronto
St James Cathedral Chicago