WASHINGTON, D.C.: Cathedral becomes sole East Coast venue for Keiskamma Altarpiece

January 15, 2008

The multi-panel Keiskamma Altarpiece, which commemorates the dead and pays tribute to the living of an AIDS-ravaged seaside town, opens at its only East Coast venue on January 16 at Washington National Cathedral.

More than 130 townspeople of Hamburg in the Kieskamma River valley in South Africa’s Eastern Cape province crafted the devotional work through embroidery, beadwork, appliqué and photography.

The main figures represented in the devotional work were chosen by the community.

Closed, the central image of the altarpiece is a cross with the body of Christ replaced by the image of a recent widow dressed in traditional attire surrounded by the children of Hamburg.

Sets of “cupboard doors” open to reveal lost family members and friends, a local choir, animals, angels and dramatic life-size photographs of three grandmothers with their grandchildren. These pictures represent an all-too-familiar social phenomenon in South Africa, which may have as many as two million AIDS orphans under the age of 15 by the end of the decade, a cathedral news release said.

Dr. Carol Hofmeyr, physician and artist, opened the area’s only AIDS hospice and treatment center several years ago with her physician husband. Her initial idea was to teach needlework to impoverished women as a means of assisting them economically as well as enabling them to grieve through this unique form of communal therapy. The plan for the altarpiece was born after Hofmeyr visited Colmar in Alsace Lorraine, home to the Isenheim altarpiece, one of the greatest works of the German Renaissance.

The Keiskamma Altarpiece will be on display through March 9, and is free and open to the public. The Altarpiece has shown in Toronto, Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Seattle.

The altarpiece will end its North American journey where it began -- at St. James Episcopal Cathedral, Chicago -- March 25-May 11. The St. James community has embraced this project from the first sight of the altarpiece on someone's Blackberry, according to a news release emailed by a member of the community.

“We in Chicago look forward to bringing it ‘home,’ before it goes home forever,” wrote Eileen Harakal, national tour manager for the altarpiece.

The Keiskamma Altarpiece will then return to South Africa where it will be on display in Johannesburg for a year, she said. The community in Hamburg, is raising money to construct a building to house the altarpiece -- there is no building tall enough in Hamburg now -- when it finally rejoins the community that created it. The funds obtained for the Keiskamma Trust from this U.S. tour hopefully will contribute to this effort.