As the twin scourges of AIDS and unemployment ravaged their rural district, the women of the South African fishing village of Hamburg fought back with the weapons they were given: embroidery needles.
What began as a 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 went on display here Sunday above the altar of St. James Episcopal Cathedral, the first stop of a US tour.
The Keiskamma Altarpiece, named after a river that flows past Hamburg, is a huge work — 3.9m high and 6.6m wide when fully extended. It combines intricate embroidery, applique 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, 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.
In 2000 she moved to Hamburg with her husband, Justus Hofmeyr, when he established an AIDS clinic and hospice in the village of 3,000 people, which is 48km from the nearest hospital. She soon learned that at least 30 percent of the adult population in the region was HIV-positive and modern health care was nonexistent.
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 like the Norman Conquest, it told the epic story of South Africa's Eastern Cape Province from legendary times to the end of apartheid in 1994. That tapestry, over 100m 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.”