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AIDS-Inspired Altarpiece Tours America

As the twin scourges of AIDS and unemployment ravaged their rural district, the women of the South African fishing village of Hamburg decided to fight back with the weapons they were given: embroidery needles.
/ Source: The Associated Press

As the twin scourges of AIDS and unemployment ravaged their rural district, the women of the South African fishing village of Hamburg decided to fight back with the weapons they were given: embroidery needles.

And what began as their simple plan to earn money for medicine through handicrafts has led to the creation of several massive and elaborate communal artworks _ the most recent of which is on display here above the altar of St. James Episcopal Cathedral as the first stop of a U.S. tour.

The Keiskamma Altarpiece, named after a river that flows past Hamburg, is a huge work _ 13 feet high and 22 feet wide when fully extended. It combines intricate embroidery, appliqu?? and beadwork with life-size portrait photography to express both the horrors of the South African AIDS epidemic and the resilience of Hamburg's people.

"It took more than 120 women and three or four men about six months of full-time work to create this," said the project's originator, Dr. Carol Hofmeyr, as cathedral staff opened the altarpiece like a cupboard to reveal all three of its layers. As she explained the piece's complex multiple images, Hofmeyr also told of how she came to Hamburg and became involved in the artwork.

"I was trained as a medical doctor and practiced for several years, but I burned out and found I could not stand it any more, so I went back to school and obtained a degree in fine arts," the Johannesburg native said.

But in 2000, she moved to Hamburg with her husband, Dr. Justus Hofmeyr, who was opening an AIDS clinic and hospice in the village of 3,000 people, which is 30 miles from the nearest hospital. She soon learned that at least 30 percent of the adult population in the region was HIV-positive and that modern health care was nonexistent.

Eunice Mangwane, 58, a grandmother who volunteered as a counselor at the clinic, said many villagers blamed the affliction on witchcraft or on powder scattered "by a white man in an airplane."

"When I saw what the people there had to endure ... I went back to practicing medicine, but I also wanted to use art to help people, too," Hofmeyr said.

Noting that the Xhosa women of the area use geometric needlework to decorate clothing, Hofmeyr thought embroidered items such as pillowcases might be sold to pay for antiviral drugs and other medical care. She enlisted two women from England to teach the village women European embroidery techniques.

"They learned very fast, and they loved it," she said. "And then they were asking me, `Can't we do something bigger _ something more important?'"

What they decided on was big, indeed _ an African version of Normandy's famed Bayeux Tapestry. But instead of showing a military action such as the Norman Conquest, the Hamburg tapestry told the epic story of South Africa's Eastern Cape Province from legendary times to the end of apartheid in 1994. That tapestry, hundreds of feet long, now hangs in a government building in Cape Town.

"Then they wanted to know, `What next?'" Hofmeyr recalled.

Her suggestion _ and the seed of the Keiskamma Altarpiece _ came from a recent trip she had made to Alsace, in eastern France. There, in the city of Colmar, she had seen one of the greatest works of the German Renaissance, Matthias Grunewald's Isenheim Altarpiece of 1515. That huge piece, too, had been created in response to a horrifying disease, a mysterious affliction called St. Anthony's Fire.

"There were suddenly so many analogies," Hofmeyr said. "They didn't know it at the time, but St. Anthony's Fire was caused by ergot, a fungus that grows on damp rye. It caused arterial constriction, horrible sores and gangrene. It didn't kill quickly, like the plague, it killed slowly and agonizingly, like AIDS.

"And like AIDS in South Africa, St. Anthony's Fire afflicted mostly the poorer people, who ate more rye than wheat, which was expensive."

Hofmeyr found another analogy, too. Ergot contains the precursor chemical to LSD, so outbreaks of St. Anthony's Fire were often accompanied by terrifying mass delusions. Several survivors of one of the last known outbreaks, in the early 1950s, remembered hallucinations of being sprayed with burning gasoline.

"To me, the most frightening thing about AIDS is the dementia it can bring," Hofmeyr said. "The people whose minds are affected have the least hope, and they are the ones who will refuse treatment."

The women quickly adopted the altarpiece idea, and chose to duplicate the exact dimensions of the original in Colmar. But instead of Christ and the saints in Grunewald's masterpiece, they chose to depict the residents of their own village _ an AIDS widow, an eccentric "prophet" who dances on the sand dunes, and several of Hamburg's most respected older women.

"It's a way of showing people that they're the same as the saints," Hofmeyr said.

At the bottom of the altarpiece, where Grunewald painted the Entombment of Christ, the women showed the funeral of Dumile Paliso, who died of AIDS at age 35. Paliso's body is covered with festering sores, just like that of Christ in Grunewald's painting.

The innermost layer of Grunewald's altarpiece is hollow to show statues of several saints, but the innermost layer of the modern work consists of photos of Mangwane and two other grandmothers who raise some of Hamburg's many AIDS orphans.

"These are strong, strong, strong women," Hofmeyr said.

The Keiskamma Altarpiece was shown at St. James Anglican Cathedral in Toronto during a recent international AIDS conference there. It will be on display in Chicago until Sept. 20, when it will move on to Los Angeles for several months at the University of California at Los Angeles, which partly underwrote the cost of the tour. Later stops may be arranged.

"We want to bring it back to Hamburg, but we have no church there," said Mangwane. "We Anglicans take turns meeting in one another's homes, and the Methodists and Baptists do the same. We also have no post office, and only one tarred street, but that doesn't bother us, because we also have no cars."