The Keiskamma Guernica

An amazing documentary by Dr Nicola Ashmore.

A recent article, 29th October 2015, in the MIT Press Journals :

Prof Brenda Schmahmann ‘Patching up a Community in Distress: HIV/AIDS and the “Keiskamma Guernica” ‘

This exhibition bears eloquent witness to the ongoing painful struggle of rural communities dealing with the AIDS epidemic. It is a lament for the dead, for the injustices of our health system and the staggering grief experienced in Eastern Cape villages today.

The central work is the Keiskamma Guernica, based on the 1937 painting Picasso created to tell the story of the bombing of a small village in Spain.  The bombs were dropped by Germans at the request of the Spanish nationalist government, and fell on a market day, when the centre of town was full of women and children from the rural areas surrounding it. Picasso’s work has since stood as a powerful protest against this incident, an example of all places and times when the most vulnerable are sacrificed by governments concerned only with pursuing their own agendas, and people who have no compassion for the poor.

Unlike the original Guernica, ours depicts not an instant of horror but rather a slow eating away at the whole fabric of a community. Each day another thread is lost, and suddenly an entire generation has disappeared. It has seemed that as we stitched in panic and in sorrow against this disintegration, more holes have appeared and gaps that could not be mended.

While the foundations of a new wealthy and privileged society have been built up, we have dug countless graves. In our villages the suffering do not scream as they do in Picasso’s bombed-out scene, rather they ceaselessly mourn,  pray and persist,  but too often submit to the relentless disease,  and die, un-recounted. In this exhibition we try to tell to tell the story of individual grief and struggle and also to tell of the resilience of the people we know. We daily witness courage and strength in people ignored by the powerful and wealthy. Dignity and faith survive here, against all the odds.

Though the fig tree may not blossom
Nor fruits be on the vines
Though the labour of the olive may fail
And the fields yield no food
Yet will I praise Him.
– Habakkuk 3 v 17, 18

In the fragmented former Ciskei homeland – where the Art and Health Projects of the Keiskamma Trust work – children still die because they cannot access health care, the elderly suffer from treatable conditions and clinics regularly run out of medicines.  The vast majority of people are unemployed, schools are derelict, and nutritious food is scarce.

Into this already impoverished situation entered HIV and AIDS which has for decades further eroded the hopes and strength of a population already devastated by poverty and the aftermath of the abuses of the apartheid regime. In the mid-1990s while the disease spread through South Africa the government refused to address the signs of the epidemic, and then when the numbers infected became clear, it denied for years treatment necessary to survive it.

Today one thousand people die every day from AIDS in South Africa alone. The Keiskamma Art and Health Projects have lived and worked in this situation for the past 7 years and this exhibition tells their story.

Keiskamma Guernica is of the same scale as Picasso’s original [3.5 metres (11 ft) tall and 7.8 metres (25.6 ft) wide] and is also cast in somber colours. While Picasso’s black, white and grey monochrome is said to have been chosen to reflect the medium –newspaper print – through which Picasso heard of the disaster, the grey brown background of Keiskamma Guernica is formed from the blankets of patients who have stayed at our treatment centre, skirts of traditional Xhosa women and hand-made felt.

The Keiskamma Guernica was designed and created by Carol Hofmeyr, assisted by Nokuphiwa Gedze, Nozeti Makhubalo, Nombuyiselo Malumbezo, Veronica Betani, Cebo Mvubu, Florence Danais, Grace Cross, Gay Staurup, Buyiswa Beja, Nomfusi Nkani, Bandlakazi Nyongo, Magda Greyling,Thobisa Nkani and Ayanda Gcezengana and  felters and embroiderers from the Keiskamma Art Project. With additional help from Irene Neilson, Lynnley Watson, Liz Velz, Cathy Stanley, Franck Danais, Justus Hofmeyr, Renzske Scholtz, Robert Hofmeyr, Annette Woudstra, Marielda Marais.