all photos by Paul Mills, except where otherwise noted
The Keiskamma Art Project in Hamburg in the Eastern Cape of South Africa has become well known for making large-scale works, primarily in needlework but often incorporating other media, which rework iconic art objects from the West in such a way as to focus on local issues of concern. In this article I examine one such work. The Keiskamma Guernica (Fig. 1), begun late in 2009 and completed midway through 2010, is constituted from appliquéed textiles and includes embroidery as well as elements in wire, metal, and beadwork that have been collaged to its surface. An adaptation of Picasso's famous Guernica (1937; Fig. 2) which takes as its subject matter the horrific impact of the bombing of the historic town of Guernica in Spain by German forces working in cooperation with fascist leader Francisco Franco during the Spanish Civil War,1 the Keiskamma Art Project's version speaks of the devastating impact of HIV/AIDS on Hamburg and its surrounds.
This was by no means the first time the Keiskamma Art Project had produced a work focused on HIV/AIDS. The project's Keiskamma Altarpiece (2005; Fig. 3) represented responses to the disease and the community's provision of support to the numerous youngsters whom AIDS had orphaned, by referring to the Isenheim Altarpiece (Fig. 4) which had been commissioned in the early sixteenth century by the religious order of St. Anthony, who cared for victims of ergotism, a devastating leprosy-like skin condition. Achieving particular notice through its exhibition at the Fowler Museum at UCLA in 2006 as well as its display at numerous churches in the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom over a period of more than two years, the Keiskamma Altarpiece was also shown at various venues in South Africa and, in 2013, travelled to Germany.
The Keiskamma Altarpiece was made shortly after Carol Hofmeyr, a medical doctor and artist who founded the Keiskamma Art Project in 2000, had secured private funding that enabled about eight people in the community to acquire antiretroviral treatment and simultaneously with the rollout of government-sponsored antiretroviral medication first reaching Hamburg. As I have observed previously (Schmahmann 2010), its message of hope would be especially apt as the work took shape while the health of people was improving dramatically and, it seemed, almost miraculously. I have also observed that this message of optimism would underpin smaller altarpieces referring to the impact of HIV/AIDS made immediately subsequent to the Keiskamma Altarpiece, in late 2005 and early 2006,2 as well as the project's large-scale Creation Altarpiece, which was completed in 2007.3 But, as I indicate in the present article, there is a distinct shift in the mood and tenor in the Keiskamma Guernica which, rather than being imbued with a spirt of positivity as well as confidence about the community's capacity to survive the onslaught of HIV/AIDS, suggests severe suffering and profound despair experienced in Hamburg and its surrounds. As the Keiskamma Art Project (2010a) observed, the work is “a lament for the dead, for the injustices of our health system and the staggering grief experienced in Eastern Cape villages today.”
In interpreting meanings within the Keiskamma Guernica, one would want to consider the implications of using a well-known European artwork as its prototype and how this may affect a reading of its content. While being mindful of the fact that people in the Keiskamma Art Project, other than Hofmeyr and a handful of members with a tertiary education, probably have no knowledge of postmodernist theory, Linda Hutcheon's definition of parody as a genre which involves “repetition with critical distance which marks difference rather than similarity” (Hutcheon 1985:6) is nevertheless useful for suggesting something about the relationship between works by the project and the iconic artworks to which they refer. In the case of Keiskamma Guernica, for example, Hutcheon's definition suggests that qualities which the work has in common with Picasso's Guernica may actually emphasize the respects in which the South African work is different to its prototype. Apart from drawing attention to the fact that the Keiskamma Guernica is about circumstances particular to 2010 rather than 1937 and indeed about a devastating disease rather than about civil war, its reference to Picasso's work might be understood to emphasize respects in which it speaks of paradigms and frameworks of people in South Africa rather than those of a Spaniard living in France.
Purchased by the Red Location Museum in the Eastern Cape city of Port Elizabeth shortly after it was unveiled at the National Arts Festival held in Grahamstown4 midway through 2010, the Keiskamma Guernica was shown briefly at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg in 2011, was included in the Venice Biennale in 2012, and travelled to the South African National Gallery in Cape Town in 2013. Small copies of the work were included in the Smithsonian Folklife Festival in Washington DC in 2012 as well as in the A.R.T. Show, curated by Carol Brown and David Gere, which opened in KZNSA Gallery in Durban in South Africa that same year, and details of the Keiskamma Guernica were constituted into a set of stamps to mark World AIDS Day in 2013.5 Despite this exposure, the Keiskamma Guernica has not been given the detailed engagement accorded the Keiskamma Altarpiece and has in fact been discussed only in reviews (see Anon. 2010, Markman 2010), engagements comprising just a few paragraphs (see, for example, Ravasio 2012), and a small pamphlet the project made available at the 2010 National Arts Festival (Keiskamma Art Project 2010a). In addressing this absence of in-depth discussion of the work, I hope to provide insights both about challenges in managing HIV/AIDS that arose subsequent to 2007 and how these difficulties had a bearing on the choice and treatment of subject matter in the Keiskamma Guernica.
I begin with a contextualization of the work by offering some background on the project as well as a discussion of responses to HIV/AIDS in Hamburg. As I have previously examined the history of Hamburg as well as the circumstances which led to the founding of the Keiskamma Art Project (Schmahmann 2010:35–37), I provide only a summary of that information here. Relatedly, the emphasis in my discussion of HIV/AIDS is on events that had immediate impact on the content of the Keiskamma Guernica rather than on how the disease may have arrived in Hamburg and the general challenges it has posed (factors and issues which are examined in Schmahmann 2010:38–39). Following this engagement, I explore how the Keiskamma Guernica was made as well as possible meanings and implications of its imagery and form.
MANAGING HIV/AIDS IN HAMBURG: AN ONGOING CHALLENGE
Hamburg, located sixty miles southwest of East London, is a small town by the mouth of the Keiskamma River (Fig. 5). When she settled there in 2000, Hofmeyr was struck by the levels of poverty in the town and its surrounding villages and sought to establish an art project which might enable local people (almost all of whom are isiXhosa speakers) to earn an income. Along with making large-scale works which involve significant numbers of the approximately 130 people6 who are associated with the project (and who receive a salary during periods in which they are contracted to participate in the making of such works), the collective has been set up in such a way that it also enables members to make small-scale art objects individually. The latter are sold in a shop adjacent to its primary studio (Fig. 6) as well as via various retailers elsewhere in South Africa. While embroidery is a primary focus, the project has developed in such a way that it also involves work in other media, and—along with embroidered cushion covers and tote bags—the shop includes, for example, cards embellished with woodcut prints as well as objects in beadwork, felt, wire, and ceramic. The initiative has also widened to provide social support in a broad sense. The art project falls under the umbrella of the Keiskamma Trust, a community organization set up in 2004 which also has initiatives in health, music, and education.
From the outset, Hofmeyr encouraged the development of art with content and iconography relevant to the community. Local histories would inform the project's first large-scale work, the Keiskamma Tapestry (2004), which comprises seventy-three panels of varied length and measures nearly 122 meters in total and is on permanent loan to Parliament in Cape Town. Invoking reference to the Bayeux Tapestry, which represented events leading up to the Battle of Hastings in England in 1066, the Keiskamma Tapestry accords primary attention to the Frontier Wars (1779–1878) between colonial forces and local people in South Africa. In the Keiskamma Altarpiece, which was made a year later, the project once again used an iconic artwork from the West as a prototype (in this instance the Isenheim Altarpiece), but this time to refer to a medical issue of crucial significance to the community: HIV/AIDS.
The findings of the most recent comprehensive survey of HIV Prevalence in South Africa undertaken by the country's Human Sciences Research Council in 2012, and published in 2014, estimates that 12.2% of South Africans are HIV-positive (Shisana et al. 2014:xxiv)—a figure which points to the country's poor history of managing the disease and its impact. The National AIDS Coordinating Committee of South Africa, formed in 1992, envisaged a dedicated approach to tackling the disease and its social effects, but—possibly because it was presented with a host of other matters requiring urgent attention, such as lack of housing and inadequate educational structures, or perhaps because “AIDS warnings and the message of safer sex were not subjects congenial to those savouring the euphoria of freedom” (Van der Vliet 2004:54)—efforts to manage the disease were in fact put on the back burner during Nelson Mandela's term in office. This situation deteriorated further when Thabo Mbeki came to power in June 1999 and appointed Manto Tshabalala-Msimang as his health minister. The former president and his health minister, influenced by dissident scientists who questioned the link between AIDS and the HIV virus and persuaded by theories that AIDS was a hoax, stalled in introducing antiretroviral treatment, suggesting instead that the disease might be treated exclusively through vitamins and nutrition, most notably a diet rich in beetroot, lemons, garlic, and African potatoes. It was only through the extensive pressure exerted by the Treatment Action Campaign, a nongovernment organization formed in 1998, and other agencies that government-sponsored antiretroviral rollout programs were finally approved late in 2003. Although Jacob Zuma (who assumed power in April 2009) and his health minister, Aaron Motsoalodi, prioritized making available antiretroviral treatment, only 55% of adults and 36% of children who were eligible for HIV medication were in fact receiving it by the end of 2010 (Simelela 2014:250). Also, while Zuma has not supported the AIDS denialism operative during Mbeki's presidency, he has nevertheless been an especially poor role model in regard to addressing unequal relations of power between men and women involved in the spread of the disease.7
Carol Hofmeyr, while trained as a medical doctor, had not practiced medicine for many years when she moved to the Eastern Cape. Although she had worked with embroidery groups on an HIV/AIDS awareness program entitled Paper Prayers in 1998, this was as an art trainer rather than in a medical capacity. (See Schmahmann 2010:39–40 for discussion of the Paper Prayers initiative and for an engagement with how other embroidery projects in South Africa began to focus on HIV/AIDS in the late 1990s.) But in the context of Hamburg and its surrounds, where there were escalating levels of HIV infection as well as an overall scenario in which people were dying through lack of speedy access to medical care or interventions, it seemed insufficient to focus only on establishing an art project. She consequently began working in various rural clinics in 2002 as well as collaborating with Eunice Mangwane, an AIDS counselor who had settled in Hamburg at the end of 2001. Prior to government-sponsored antiretroviral treatment reaching Hamburg, Hofmeyr obtained sponsorship to source antiretroviral medication privately, enabling about eight people to receive treatment in the second half of 2004. The health of those people had improved visibly by early 2005, providing the community with evidence that it was in fact possible to live a full and productive life while HIV-positive. During the first half of 2005, while the Keiskamma Altarpiece was being made, government-sponsored antiretroviral treatment finally reached Hamburg, and Hofmeyr was also able to establish a facility which enabled personalized care to be offered to HIV-positive patients—the Umtha Welanga (meaning “Rays of Sun”) Treatment Centre.
These events seemed to bode well for managing the disease and ensuring the increased wellbeing of the Hamburg community. But difficulties would in fact arise subsequently. In 2009, largely because of financial contingencies, the Keiskamma Trust was obliged to phase out its activities of disseminating antiretroviral treatment and offering hospitalization to the very ill at the Umtha Welanga Treatment Centre. HIV patients were instead required to seek out medication and, where necessary, hospitalization, from Nompumelelo Hospital in Peddie (over twenty-five miles away from Hamburg) or from Cecilia Makiwane Hospital in Madantsane township (fourteen miles from the center of East London and over sixty-seven miles from Hamburg). The building which had formerly served as the Umtha Welanga Treatment Centre would instead become the center for the Keiskamma Health Program, which focuses its energies on, for example, training and supporting community health workers, providing psychosocial support to the ill and their caregivers and families, running awareness campaigns, and providing the community with nutritional support. Hofmeyr remained involved in work at local clinics until 2013, when she resumed focusing full-time on the art project.
Besides presenting challenges to people who often lacked funding to spend on transport, the new arrangements appear to have divested residents of Hamburg and surrounding villages of proper care. While the treatment center did not have advanced medical equipment at its disposal, and hospitalization would therefore have been essential for those requiring operations or access to specialists and specialist facilities, it had enjoyed enormous success in enabling the recovery of AIDS sufferers. This was not, however, true of Eastern Cape hospitals. Mavis Zita (née Maroyi), a registered nursing sister with the Keiskamma Health Trust, explains that public hospitals often failed to treat HIV-positive people with the sensitivity that staff at the Umtha Welanga Treatment Centre had accorded them:
People are dying in hospital because most of them [i.e. their staff] are ignorant about HIV and there is always that stigma. … They are not empathetic to people's suffering. That is why they are careless in their talk, they are careless in their thoughts, and they are ignorant about HIV to the extent that they say words that are traumatic to the already traumatised person instead of trying to build and rehabilitate them. [Whereas] with us here, even before you get in through the door, we would say “You are going to be alright. Don't worry. We are going to help you. We are going to treat you. We are going to do everything we can. You are going back to your family. You are going back to your children.”8
She observes also: “There are no people to counsel them in hospital. There are no people to [enable AIDS sufferers to] … feel wanted and accepted. Here we had people—counsellors alongside those of us giving the nursing care—going around their beds and counselling them.”9
Hofmeyr observes that there have been a number of incidents in which local people suffering from AIDS-related illnesses actually died through incompetent and neglectful treatment when they were hospitalized. Although the Department of Health had committed itself to ensuring that all the people of South Africa had opportunities to receive treatment, this “didn't change the way patients were treated in clinics and hospitals” in the Eastern Cape, Hofmeyr observes. “The staff don't investigate them properly and—mostly, in general—don't give them the level of care they require,” she indicates.10 As one example, she cites the case of a woman from Hamburg who, suffering from tuberculosis and in a partially conscious state, suffocated to death while in hospital because her medication was syringed into her mouth rather than via a nasogastric tube. She provides as another example the case of a young girl suffering from ascending paralysis who died because she was not put on a respirator.11
There are also structural difficulties and legislation associated with poverty that sometimes lead people to take health risks—ones which proved difficult to control after the Keiskamma Health Trust had ceased handling the dissemination of antiretroviral treatment. In Hamburg, as in numerous other villages where people lack employment opportunities, a key form of income for many families is social grants. Eunice Mangwane notes that people incapacitated through AIDS-related illnesses were afforded a disability grant for a six-month period, but this grant would not be renewed once their CD4 count had improved. In order to try to overcome this obstacle, people in desperate economic circumstances would sometimes stop taking their treatment. Such defaulting could be curtailed when people were receiving their treatment from Umtha Welanga, she explains: “We were in contact with them the whole day. We would watch and look in on them, and we gave direct treatment.” But village health workers could more easily be fooled: “It may be 9 or 10 am [when the monitor arrives], and the person says ‘I have taken the treatment already'. … [The patient knew] the monitor would do a pill count, so he or she would remove the amount of tablets that he or she would be taking for that particular day.”12
There are also numerous long-term difficulties associated with managing HIV/AIDS that are not necessarily the result of the closure of the Umtha Welanga Treatment Centre and people's dependence on hospitals and clinics where they may receive less than optimal care. Although it has become possible for people in Hamburg and surrounding villages to receive their treatment at a local clinic rather than travelling to Nompumelelo Hospital in Peddie, defaulting has unfortunately remained increasingly common. While some may perhaps still deliberately seek to lower their CD4 counts to become eligible for the renewal of their disability grants, Magda Greyling, an artist and social worker employed by the program to offer psychosocial support to vulnerable children in Hamburg and surrounding villages, says that others indicate—genuinely—that “I can't take my medication because I don't have food to eat.” She observes that the health program is also “finding more and more people are just getting tired of taking ARVs and they just stop or they say ‘it makes me sick I am going to stop'”—defaulting that, tragically, sometimes extends to their HIV-positive children.13
I have noted elsewhere that women are not only those confronting the burden of caring for the sick or looking after orphans, but are also the gender biologically most vulnerable to infection—a susceptibility complicated through women being in relationships in which they are unable to insist on condom use as well as their facing social and domestic pressure to become mothers (Schmahmann 2010:39). Additionally, it seems, some villages in the area—concerned about escalating rates of infection—have begun resorting to virginity testing, perceiving that policing girls through this practice may have a prophylactic effect. Zita mentioned the following to me:
There are old ladies who have started … inspecting the little girls to see if they have not been involved in sex. Last week, when we had a workshop, a lady from there—I met that lady myself—said it is compulsory because the parents say “Go and be inspected!” She said that in her village there is not a single girl who is pregnant. From nine or ten years up, they know they are going to be inspected.14
Sadly, such activities actually potentially increase female susceptibility to both infection and violence. Commenting on instances of virginity testing in KwaZulu-Natal, Quarraisha Abdool Karim (2005:258) observes that such practices may not only “reinforce gender inequality by placing the burden of responsibility on females,” but that they “may also [in fact] increase their vulnerability to disease, as girls identified as virgins become prey for sexual assault.”
PRODUCING THE KEISKAMMA GUERNICA
Although it was Carol Hofmeyr who devised the idea of making a work referring to concerns about HIV/AIDS modelled on Picasso's Guernica, the act of making the Keiskamma Guernica did not simply involve project members realizing a fully developed concept. Rather, as project member Nokupiwa Gedze explains, Hofmeyr said,
“there is this problem that I associate with Picasso's story of the town that was bombed.” So we sat down and we discussed it, and then we thought of the images we are going to use. Each artist drew on paper whatever picture he or she was doing to symbolise something. And then we put that together.15
Besides involving different authors in devising the initial design, the subsequent process of making the work provided opportunities for input and ideas from the various members of the group. Greyling explains this as follows:
All the artists and embroiderers would gather around what had already been done. And then Carol would stand back and ask people “What do you think?” “What do you think, Cebo?” “What do you think, Nozeti?” And then she would also give input. But she would not be the main person to do so. Everybody would give input and then there would be a decision taken how to go forward.16
Even before any drawing was done, members of the project engaged with the implications of the subject matter. Florence Danais, manager at the project, indicates that Port Elizabeth-based artist Greg Kerr gave a talk on Picasso's Guernica. Recalling that the talk was extremely well attended and that it included embroiderers and those working in other media as well as those responsible for drawing, she remembers also that Kerr focused on formal qualities of the Guernica. Revealing how somber tonalities may have invoked a mood of gloom, Kerr also suggested how sharp shapes in the composition conveyed a sense of suffering and pain.17 Additional engagement with the content of Picasso's work occurred through a series of drawing workshops run by Greyling and a visitor from the United Kingdom, Irene Neilson, in late 2009. Focusing on a group of first-time embroiderers who were new to the project, the pair asked participants to engage with Picasso's various images of weeping women. But rather than asking women to simply copy the European prototypes, they invited participants to focus on their own perceptions about mourning and loss. As Greyling explains:
I would just say something like “Picasso drew them like this. But how would you say a Xhosa weeping women would be? Often mourning in cultures differs, not so? So often you are calm and you don't show anything—so, if that is the case, draw it like that. And maybe other times you would be wild. So if that is the case, draw it like that.”18
While not actually incorporated into the Keiskamma Guernica, these drawings (Fig. 7) enabled project members to glean a richer understanding of the subject matter.
Gedze oversaw the process of structuring the work in such a way that it was of the same scale and dimensions as the Picasso prototype. Coordinating the making of drawings, Gedze also produced some of the drawings herself—notably, the group of mourning women on the lower right side of the work (see Fig. 1), based on a photograph of women at the funeral of Dumile Paliso, whose death was narrated in the predella of the Keiskamma Altarpiece. Nombuyiselo Malumbeza worked with Gedze in devising the design for the wounded bull at the center of the work while also designing the images of weeping women which form a backdrop to that motif. Nozeti Makubalo drew the woman with an adult child on her lap, which is on the left, and a woman with upraised arms in the midst of dead and dying people, on the right. Cebo Mvubu drew the large head of a bull on the left of the work, while Thobisa Nkani drew the sun motif (top, left of the center). Nomfusi Nkani oversaw the preparation of text for the small metal panels arranged across the base of the work which record the names (normally the first name and the initial of the surname because of matters of confidentiality) as well as the birth and death dates of people who died of AIDS-related illnesses.
Different groups of embroiderers—each including about a dozen women—were able to work on the Keiskamma Guernica simultaneously, as the work was divided into different sections. Malumbeza supervised a group of embroiderers working in the project's studio in the adjacent village of Bodium, for example, while other groups worked in Hamburg. Contributions were also made by the wirework studio, where Thobisa Nkani produced figures in rusted metal and wire—described by Hofmeyr as images of Adam and Eve19—that were attached on either side of the work. The stretcher and construction of the work was made by Hofmeyr's husband, Justus.
Unlike previous works, which were made from specifically purchased material, much of the Keiskamma Guernica was fashioned to include “found” textiles and objects. Including blankets that were retrieved from the Umtha Welanga Treatment Centre after it closed down, the work also incorporates old skirts in cloth colored with natural clay dye. Even the sun was fashioned from a found item—overalls that Hofmeyr spotted Thobisa Nkani wearing and requested he donate to the work.20 Whereas the Keiskamma Tapestry and Keiskamma Altarpiece had involved a group of beadworkers in the nearby village of Ntlini devising beadwork specifically for those works, in this instance beaded AIDS ribbons left over from a past initiative were collected and sewn on to the work (just above and below the metal panels).
The Keiskamma Guernica is a self-contained work but, when first exhibited as part of the National Arts Festival, it was constituted as part of an installation which incorporated works in other media made by the project and which also responded to concerns with HIV/AIDS. Placed immediately in front of the work (Figs. 8–9) was a kraal—that is, an enclosure constructed from acacia bushes of the type customarily used for cattle (Fig. 10)—within which were displayed a series of pots made by the ceramics studio of the Keiskamma Art Project, established in March 2009 under the leadership of Cebo Mvubu (Keiskamma Art Project 2010b). Including large ceramics made by Mvubu and Thobisa Nkani, it also featured the output of workshops in which people who had lost family members produced small pots in their memory. Also exhibited were pillowcases embroidered with images of weeping women derived from drawings made at the workshop run by Neilsen and Greyling. Each was embroidered with the name of a local person who had died of AIDS-related complications (abbreviated—as with the names on the Keiskamma Guernica itself—to sustain confidentiality) as well as his or her date of birth and death and, in the manner of a package, enclosed the medical records of the individual it commemorated. A series of panels produced by the group at Bodium were also on display (Fig. 11). Reworking various motifs from Picasso's Guernica, they were constituted from felt appliquéed on cotton fabric, which was embellished further with embroidery. And in a locked glass case, Hofmeyr included notebooks with her own medical records from the treatment center, which were wrapped in felt covers that had been produced in a workshop run by a visitor to Hamburg, Liz Velz, and her daughter, Cathy.
INTERPRETING THE KEISKAMMA GUERNICA
The decimation of the town of Guernica during the Spanish Civil War was the first instance of a systematic dropping of bombs on a civilian settlement by a military air force, and Picasso's visual language in his painting speaks of suffering wrought on ordinary people going about their day-to-day business on market day (see Fig. 2). On the left, a woman with a dead baby in her lap cries in shock and emotional pain, while on the far right—with arms outstretched above her head in the manner of a crucified Christ—a terrified woman falls from a burning house. Beneath her, on the right at the bottom, a female appears to stumble and fall to her knees. Immediately to the left of the woman with outstretched arms, a female leans out of a window, holding out a light, as if to try to make sense of the horror that confronts her. This motif resonates against the eye-like sun overhead. Including an image of a bulb inside it, it perhaps alludes to bursts of harsh light—like the flashes of a switch being turned on and off—in a town immolated through descending bombs.
Picasso also invoked the horror of the bombing of Guernica through allusions to the language and practices of the bullfight, with some motifs simultaneously referring to the Crucifixion. It was common practice for elderly workhorses to be purchased for a nominal price and sent blindfolded into the bullfight ring to be gored by an angry bull (see Russell 1980:44). Picasso's hapless horse stabbed with a spear who cries out in agony, which constitutes a central motif in his painting, is readily interpreted as an analogy for the townsfolk of Guernica caught unawares by the bombs descending on them. At the same time, the animal alludes implicitly to a crucified Christ, and in that sense parallels the image of the woman with upraised arms on its right. The bull itself is depicted on the far left. A curiously impassive onlooker, the animal's meaning in regard to the topic of the painting—the bombing of Guernica—has been interpreted variously. For example, while Picasso once indicated that the bull stood for “brutality and darkness,” on another occasion he indicated that both the bull and the horse are “massacred animals” (Russell 1980:56)—that is, victims of a situation rather than culpable for it. A figure on the bottom left of the painting lies fallen, with his mouth open and his amputated arm still holding a lance. This seemingly dead bullfighter may be the picador whose role it is to test the bull's strength with the aid of a lance. But, as Russell (1980:22) suggests, the figure also might be read as a fusion of Christ following the Deposition with St. Longinus, the Roman soldier who belatedly endeavoured to administer a type of coup de grace to the crucified Christ by piercing his side.
The Keiskamma Art Project commented, in the pamphlet produced to accompany the inaugural exhibition of the work at the National Arts Festival, that, unlike Picasso's painting, the Keiskamma Guernica “depicts not an instant of horror but rather a slow eating away at the whole fabric of a community” (2010a). However, Gedze suggests that the representation of the sudden devastation experienced through the bombing of Guernica could in fact be understood as analogous to the dramatic impact of HIV/AIDS on Hamburg: “You know the outbreak of HIV/AIDS came as a shock to everyone. It came like a bomb to everyone: it blasted and people died from HIV/AIDS. So it was similar to Picasso's Guernica which represented people bombed in the town.”21 Hofmeyr indicates, additionally, that it was people's lack of agency in Hamburg and its surroundings that made the Picasso painting an appropriate prototype. As when Guernica was bombed,
ordinary people [in Hamburg] were left to suffer because of some political decisions that are outside of their experience or ability to change. People are sitting in meetings and deciding this or that is a good plan without getting down to [grassroots realities, such as] somebody with a sick adult son at home who has no transport to get him to a hospital, so they watch him die. There is no plan for that. Or people begging “Please don't send my son to hospital because everybody dies there,” and then phoning and saying “Please get him out! There hasn't been a doctor here for a week!”22
In the Keiskamma Guernica, Picasso's crucifixion-like image of the woman falling from a burning building has been adapted into a portrait of Hofmeyr (Fig. 12). Represented seemingly caught in a swamp, and surrounded by struggling and deceased people, she is a floundering savior endeavouring to climb out of the dismal hell-like circumstances in which she finds herself. Gedze explains this as follows:
There is Carol surrounded by dying people and thin people. Carol was the only doctor in the village, not just in Hamburg but in twenty-nine villages in the district, so she was working very hard and she was crying out loud asking for help because at the time the government wasn't helping with anything.23
Similarly, Makubalo, the author of the image, comments on it as follows: “Everybody was crying to Carol. ‘Carol, my child is dying. What must I do?’ And it was too much for Carol.”24
According to Gedze, Hofmeyr is also represented through the image of the woman holding out a light in the center of the work (Fig. 13).25 This image might be understood to invoke a sense of Hofmeyr being perpetually on call at all hours of the day and night because of the absence of other doctors in the vicinity. But as with the representation of the woman with her arms raised as if being crucified, this motif could also be understood as being imbued with Christian associations. Russell (1980:37) described the significance of the corresponding figure in Picasso's painting as follows:
With her light and her muscular arm she insists on what is before her, demanding our engagement; “For Zion's sake I will not hold my peace … until the righteousness thereof go forth as brightness, and the salvation thereof as a lamp, that burneth.” Here one may recall the posting of the unflinching forefinger of the John the Baptist in Grünewald's Crucifixion [see Fig. 4], compelling the panorama, pointing implacably to the agony of Christ.
This same sense is invoked in the Keiskamma Guernica where, in the manner of a John the Baptist, the woman holding out a lantern reveals and emphasizes a truth or reality—in this instance the grim impact of HIV/AIDS on the community.
On the left of the image, and operating as a type of parallel to the representation of the Hofmeyr surrounded by the deceased and the dying, is an image of a local woman holding her dead child on her lap (Fig. 14). Pieta-like, and thus extending the allusions to the Crucifixion, this is a mother mourning the loss of her adult child. As Gedze notes, it is primarily young adults in Hamburg and its surroundings who were dying of AIDS-related illnesses and “leaving their daughters and sons in the care of their own parents who were the grandparents.”26 But whereas the Keiskamma Altarpiece emphasized how the support and care of an older generation of women meant that Hamburg would survive the terrible onslaught of the disease, in the Keiskamma Guernica the message is of inexpressible loss and grief.
The wire figures of Adam and Eve positioned on either side of the work (and which are unfortunately difficult to discern in reproductions) are not related to the Picasso source but are instead an offshoot of Renaissance altarpieces such as the Ghent Altarpiece (1432) by Jan (and possibly Hubert) van Eyck to which the Keiskamma Art Project had in fact referred in their Creation Altarpiece in 2007. Renaissance altarpieces included imagery pertinent to their functioning in the context of the Mass and which, to use the words of Barbara Lane (1984:137), dramatized “the relationship between the earthly ceremony and its ultimate promise” of salvation. The conjunction of imagery related to the Crucifixion with the figures of Adam and Eve, as in the Ghent Altarpiece, conveyed the message that Christ's martyrdom was a remedy for original sin, and thus provided the devout with an image of hope for eternal life. The figures of Adam and Eve along with allusions to the Crucifixion and Pieta in the Keiskamma Guernica suggest that the work might perhaps be seen in relation to this tradition—that is, as a way of suggesting that terrible suffering in this life will be relieved in an afterlife.
The bull on the left side of the Keiskamma Guernica (Fig. 15) is the motif that perhaps most closely approximates the Picasso painting. But, rather than having anything to do with the bullfight, the animal might be interpreted in light of the centrality of cattle within the histories of isiXhosa-speaking peoples as well as works by the Keiskamma Art Project. Historically valued commodities, cattle were “the lynch-pin of Xhosa social structure” in the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries, Peires (2003a:8–9) observes, noting that their role as bride price was particularly important:
It was not simply that they served as a store of wealth and a means of exchange—spearheads, copper bangles and beads did that too. But only cattle were exchangeable against women. Thus they represented not only the accumulated product of past labour, they also served as the key to all future production and reproduction.
Cattle have been frequently represented in works by the Keiskamma Art Project since 2001, when the group first began to do embroideries. Indeed, appearing also on the project's signage (see Fig. 6), the animal may be considered a signature motif. This is significant in the context of an initiative that is intended to enable people to support themselves economically. Project members—the vast majority of whom are women—are in fact reworking an historical signifier of bride-price in such a way that it instead becomes associated with female independence and autonomy.
But crucial for the meaning of this tapestry specifically is an historical event involving cattle—one which, of all events that transpired during the colonial period, tends to have been most frequently or widely articulated to project members during their upbringing. In 1856, a teenager, Nongqawuse, and a younger female relative were tending fields on the bank of the Gxarha River, when two “strangers” appeared, summoned the older girl, and provided her with a message that her community should kill their cattle and refrain from cultivating crops in preparation for a recreation of the world. This vision was to have dramatic impact. By the end of 1857 (the same year that Hamburg was founded), about 400,000 cattle had been slaughtered and at least 35,000 people had died of starvation. This tragedy decimated the amaXhosa and led ultimately to their loss of independence. No longer able to fend off colonial pressures on their land, Peires (2003b) observes in his detailed exploration of this event, many were also drawn into migrant labor in an endeavor to save themselves and their families from starvation.
The story of Nongqawuse had served as a primary focus for the Keiskamma Art Project in their first embroideries exhibited at the National Arts Festival in 2002. It would feature again in the Keiskamma Tapestry (see Schmahmann 2010:24–25 for an illustration) and once again on the summit of the Creation Altarpiece (Fig. 16)—a work focused on celebrating the natural environment and its capacity to sustain humankind. In prior works by the project such as these, Nongqawuse's disastrous millenarian vision would seem to be reconfigured into a message of hope for the restoration of the community in a postcolonial era. Associated with improvements in female livelihoods rather than with impending doom, her prophesy becomes for the Keiskamma Art Project a premonition of forthcoming positive social and economic changes that will correct the wrongs of the past. But the meaning in the Keiskamma Guernica would seem to be different to these other works. The bull is placed parallel to, and appears to reiterate, the image of a desperate and “crucified” Hofmeyr struggling against an inferno of disease and fatalities. The implication would seem to be that, as with the cattle killings during Nongqawuse's time, the early twenty-first century is witnessing a catastrophe with momentous import to isiXhosa speakers—death through HIV/AIDS-related causes.
A sacrificed bull is in fact included in the Keiskamma Guernica (Fig. 17), replacing Picasso's wounded horse. The wounded horse—as part of the iconography of the bullfight—is a hapless scapegoat, and thus analogous to the victims of the Guernica bombing who had no agency to prevent that atrocity occurring or to remove themselves from danger. The sacrificed bull in the Keiskamma Guernica, likewise, invokes the idea of innocent beings subject to terrible trauma and denied any capacity to prevent themselves from being victim to its effects. Overlaying part of the animal, in the manner of a fragile skin and therefore emphasizing the idea of physical vulnerability, is embroidered wording derived from a type of text message that had become frequent in Hofmeyr's day-to-day experience and suggested lack of capacity within the Eastern Cape to manage AIDS-related illnesses. It was a conversation via text on Hofmeyr's cell phone with “one of the village health workers whose brother was dying and I was unable to do anything. She told me the details of what was happening and then the next minute he was dead.”27
In addition, the bull at the center of the work alludes to the fact that, as Peires (2003a:8) observes, the sacrifice of cattle was historically “the principal means whereby the deceased forefathers was invoked and propitiated.” In current sacrificial ceremonies amongst the amaXhosa, as in those of the past, emphasis is placed on the bellow of the bull or cow, which is prodded in the stomach with the tip of a sacrificial spear. The cry of the animal is not, as Shadrack Mvunabandi (2008:83) points out, attributed “to plausible pain that the sacrificial victim might be experiencing” (and which is therefore of understandable concern to groups and individuals concerned to prevent cruelty to animals) but is seen as the vehicle through which praises “are transmitted and approved by the ancestors”; it is interpreted “as a demonstration that the sacrifice has been acquiesced.” This meant that Picasso's image, with its particular focus on the painful cry of an impaled horse, was especially appropriate for adaptation.
Cattle may be sacrificed as part of mortuary rituals for men,28 and the motif might thus be seen in relation to the mourners at the funeral of Dumile Paliso, who are depicted immediately on the bull's right. Two ceremonial sacrifices may be involved—ukukhapha (“to send off”) which is performed a few weeks after the death, and ukubuyisa (“to bring back”), which occurs about a year after the funeral—and the motif may refer to either or both of these. But, as Gedze notes, the bull might also refer to the undertaking of sacrificial rites in the interests of securing healing from AIDS-related illnesses: “If people are dying then we will go to traditional healers to try to find out what is going on. So some families went to traditional healers and were told that you need to slaughter a cow in order for these people to heal. So that is why you see animals like that bull in the work.”29 Makubalo provides a variation on this interpretation. Rather than suggesting that the slaughter of a bull refers to the individual seeking a palliative for HIV/AIDS, she indicates that it invokes the idea of a community trying to achieve healing in a context where formal medical structures had failed:
We were crying to the Department of Health, to our government, why are they not helping us with ARVs? We were showing them how people die, how kids die, how teenagers die—how a generation is dying. What is the future while the youth is dying? … We were doing everything, praying, even slaughtering a cow. That cow was slaughtered to speak to the ancestors. In our culture that is a way of begging our ancestors for help.30
Similarly, Cebo Mbuvu commented: “In terms of poor services: we usually have to use our own vehicles to transport people who need help, and even then if you get to hospital you don't get good treatment from the nurses. … [In representing the slaughtered bull] we are trying to voice that we are not happy about the situation we are in.”31 Reference to such rituals was reinforced when the work was displayed at the National Arts Festival through including in the installation a mock-up of a cattle kraal, where such sacrifices customarily take place. When a bull is sacrificed, its actual horns are displayed at the center of the kraal—a practice that was invoked in the Keiskamma Art Project's kraal through the inclusion of wire horns attached to a carved wooden plinth (Figs. 8–9).
The bull's terrible suffering, while representing customary sacrificial rites, also in fact invokes an allusion to the Crucifixion, and thus reinforces the references to Christian iconography elsewhere in the work. Indeed, it originates not only in the wounded horse depicted by Picasso but also the crucified Christ represented by Grünewald in the closed version of the Isenheim Altarpiece. The fact that the Keiskamma Guernica alludes to customary sacrificial rituals amongst the amaXhosa while also referring to iconography associated with Christianity tallies with the beliefs of most people in Hamburg and its surrounds. People in rural areas and small towns in the Eastern Cape, like many elsewhere in South Africa and further afield on the continent, normally describe themselves as “Christian” but do not regard this as precluding their participation in customary ceremonies (Schmahmann 2010:47). As Mvunabandi (2008:133) notes, the majority of contemporary amaXhosa “have opted for a syncretistic attitude by adhering to both Christianity and their traditional belief system, without synthesizing them.” He points out that, while Christian understandings of salvation after death are attractive to many people, they often also sustain structures and a belief system that will ensure their wellbeing and happiness in this life. The latter are catered for in customary belief systems among amaXhosa, who have a much more developed cosmogony than cosmology (i.e., in religious terms, they share strongly held ideas about life and the world, but less thoroughly explicate their doctrines about the workings of the universe; see Mvunabandi 2008:60). Consequently, for the majority of amaXhosa, the two religious systems are “not contradictory or mutually exclusive, but rather complementary. The Christian view of salvation deals with life after death, while the Xhosa view of salvation deals with daily needs and life crises” (Mvunabandi 2008:128). Such thinking is manifest in the Keiskamma Guernica where imagery would seem to suggest endeavors on the part of people to secure their salvation in an afterlife while also attempting to negotiate the impact of HIV/AIDS.
The deceased male figure that Picasso depicted in the bottom left-hand side of his Guernica—a motif which, as I have indicated, might be interpreted both in terms of the language of the bullfight and Christian iconography—has been excluded in the Keiskamma Guernica. Rather than depicting the body of a particular victim of HIV infection—as was the case in the Keiskamma Altarpiece where the predella included an image of Susan Paliso's son, Dumile, when he was hospitalized—the project alludes to multiple deaths via the small metal panels arranged in a series of bands across the bottom of the work, each of which is inscribed with the name of an individual who died from an AIDS-related cause (Fig. 18). Hofmeyr explains how she had in mind the temporary metal gravestones identifying the deceased that appear on graves prior to their acquiring formal headstones. The immediate impetus for the work was her experience of driving past the cemetery in the town of Motherwell in the Eastern Cape where “all these metal new graves that were less than a year old caught the light and there was this shining sea of graves.”32 While their shimmer may have conveyed a sense of otherworldly beauty, their sheer number suggested that death in the region was in excess of what one might expect from natural causes. “There were just thousands of them,” she observes.33 Adapted for the Keiskamma Guernica, the metal panels on one level capture this ethereal glow. On another, they memorialize particular individuals in Hamburg, while at the same time invoking the sense of a community affected by an epidemic of fatalities—an allusion reinforced when the work was exhibited with an actual kraal in front of it. The small pots in the kraal that had been made to memorialize individuals who died of AIDS-related illnesses simultaneously underlined numbers of casualties in the community. And this message was emphasized still further through the inclusion in the exhibition of the pillowcases enclosing the hospital records of victims who died from AIDS-related causes.
The inclusion of these records of tragic deaths in Hamburg had an evidentiary function. Materials and fabrics incorporated into the Keiskamma Guernica likewise operate as indices34 or literal physical traces of suffering within the community. I have spoken elsewhere about how the Keiskamma Altarpiece (in its closed view, see Fig. 3) conveys a sense of comfort on a psychic level through its treatment of the surface of the work in such a way that it calls to mind a knitted blanket or quilt:
The background to the figures in the closed view of the altarpiece, rather than providing an illusion of depth, largely consists of multicolored blocks of color which call to mind a woven or knitted blanket or perhaps a patchwork quilt. … Invoking a sense that one might actually wrap oneself in the work, almost as if it were a domestic bedcover, it conveys an imaginative sense of warmth and comfort (Schmahmann 2014:62–64).
In the Keiskamma Guernica, however, blankets constitute a backdrop to the portrait of the “crucified” Hofmeyr and the deceased bodies which surround her while also providing a face and background to the “pieta” figure with her adult child in her lap. Markers of a no-longer-operative treatment center and, by implication, of nurturing and care that has ceased, they also formally reiterate the rows of commemorative grave markers at the bottom of the work and are thus associated implicitly with death. In contrast to the Keiskamma Altarpiece, which invoked the blanket as a signifier of comfort and warmth for the living, in the Keiskamma Guernica it is associated with loss—perhaps even (given its inclusion within imagery associated with the Crucifixion and Deposition) with a shroud.
The scraps of terracotta-colored fabrics in the work are also meaningful. On one level they refer to historical sartorial traditions in the Eastern Cape. As Anitra Nettleton, Sipho Ndabambi, and David Hammond-Tooke (1989:40) have observed, red ochre was “used to color clothing, particularly capes made of animal hides, which were the major item of wear amongst various groups until the importation of cloth, often in the form of blankets, from European sources replaced the indigenous leather. The new cloth garments were also stained red with ochre.” But on another, these textiles are old and visibly faded, and in the context of the work seem to invoke the idea of a community that is itself stressed, eroded and worn out. Relatedly, they may invoke the idea of “patching together” medical facilities in the absence of a functional health service.35
The use of overalls to represent the sun (Fig. 19) may also be significant. Hofmeyr explains that she had been reading about the significance of the sun in Picasso's writings and that “he was drawing suns for a long time but they were never suns that brought light.”36 Here, as with the faded and worn terracotta fabric scraps included in the work, the overalls which provided the fabric used to shape the motif convey signs of stress and use—a sense increased through the inclusion of the original garment's workmanlike pockets and seams. Constituted from a type of greenish yellow rather than vibrant gold fabric, it is a sun that seems sapped of capacity to provide its own illumination. Instead, like the Picasso prototype, the sun/eye encloses a representation of an electric bulb—in this instance, one which is suggestive of a precarious and ineffectual light. As with other imagery in the work as a whole, then, it would seem to convey messages about a community battling a dilapidated infrastructure which renders people vulnerable and compromises their capacity to manage HIV/AIDS in the spirit of hope and optimism that characterized the Keiskamma Altarpiece.
CONCLUSION: THE KEISKAMMA GUERNICA IN 2013–15
While the Keiskamma Guernica depicts the devastating impact of an inadequate healthcare infrastructure, it has also itself become affected by resistance on the part of people in desperate circumstances against a municipality for failing to address their immediate needs. By the time of its return to Port Elizabeth from its exhibition at the South African National Gallery in Cape Town midway through 2013, it was clear that the Keiskamma Guernica was in need of restoration. It was consequently not immediately put up at the Red Location Museum and instead remained off its stretchers in a crate. But, on October 18, 2013, and before any moves had been taken to arrange its repair, the museum was closed—a step which followed protests from the local New Brighton community, who resented the monies that had been spent on the institution when they themselves were obliged to live in destitute circumstances. Although this was ostensibly a temporary scenario, the Red Location Museum still remained closed to the public midway through 2015 (when this article went to press). In these difficult circumstances, it proved impossible to extract the work in order to repair it. “The last time we tried to arrange to fetch it, people were burning tires round the museum,” Hofmeyr observed in September 2014.37
The Keiskamma Altarpiece was purchased by G.T. Ferreira of Rand Merchant Bank towards the end of 2012, but its permanent home had not been decided. On September 16, 2014, a party was held to welcome it back to Hamburg while such decisions were made—one attended by many who made the work as well as people who were represented in it (Figs. 20–21). Displayed in a new municipal building with a ceiling high enough to accommodate it, it presented those in the community who had not been able to travel to witness its unveiling at the National Arts Festival in 2005 with their first opportunity to see this widely travelled work in its assembled form.
But, while the return of the work was celebrated, the event was also tinged with sadness in one respect. Examining the Keiskamma Altarpiece in Hamburg nearly a decade after work on it had first commenced could not but make evident what the content of the Keiskamma Guernica had so eloquently revealed and movingly explored—namely, that overcoming the impact of HIV/AIDS on the local community would involve a far greater series of obstacles and challenges than had seemed to be the case in early 2005.
I am immensely grateful to Carol Hofmeyr, Florence Danais, Mavis Zita, Eunice Mangwane, Magda Greyling, Nokupiwa Gedze, Nozeti Makubalo, and Cebo Mvubu for the time they spent discussing with me the making of the Keiskamma Guernica as well as circumstances which had a bearing on its iconography and form. Thank you also to Paul Mills for undertaking photography for me. Research for this article was undertaken with funding granted me by the National Research Foundation (NRF) in South Africa. Please note, however, that any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this article are those of the author, and the NRF does not accept any liability in regard to them.
Made for the Spanish Pavilion at the Paris World Fair in 1937 and shown in a few venues in Europe thereafter, Picasso's Guernica would reside in the United States from 1939 until 1981, serving as a keynote and influential work in the Museum of Modern Art in New York. It has been in the Reina Sofia Museum in Madrid since 1992. For accounts of the history of the work's making and reception as well as the politics and circumstances surrounding its various relocations, see Martin 2003 and Van Hensbergen 2004. For an excellent overview of the bombing of Guernica, Picasso's response to these events, and examination of the Spanish Pavilion at the Paris World Fair, see Chipp 1989. First published in 1962, Arnheim 2006 offered a formative interpretation of the subject matter and its progression through seven stages which were recorded in photographs taken by Dora Maar. The choice and treatment of subject matter is also the focus of a helpful study by Russell 1980.
The Creation Altarpiece (2007; see Schmahmann 2010:49, Fig. 16 for an illustration of the closed work and Schmahmann 2013 for closed and open views), although focused on celebrating the beauty of the environment rather than specifically on the impact of the disease, was nevertheless motivated by Hofmeyr's feeling that the project “needed some kind of celebration because we had achieved a lot and a lot of people were getting better from HIV,” and included a photograph of two children with a pregnant woman—imagery intended to represent hope for a generation free of AIDS.
Taking place over about nine days at the end of June and beginning of July, the National Arts Festival in Grahamstown (a small city in the Eastern Cape) is thought to be the largest arts festival in the Southern Hemisphere.
The vast majority of members are female, but the project includes a small number of males.
At his trial for rape, which commenced in December 2005, Zuma alleged that his accuser had indicated her sexual availability by wearing a kanga when she said good night to him. As Dean Peacock and Bafana Khumalo (2007) observe, Zuma's “claims that sex between he and the complainant was consensual should sound alarm bells about men's understanding of what constitutes sexual consent and their sense of entitlement to women's bodies.”
Author interview with Mavis Zita, Hamburg, November 16, 2014.
Author interview with Zita.
Author interview with Carol Hofmeyr and Florence Danais, Hamburg, September 15, 2014.
Author interview with Hofmeyr and Danais.
Author interview with Eunice Mangwane, Hamburg, September 16, 2014.
Author interview with Magda Greyling, Hamburg, September 16, 2014.
Author interview with Zita.
Author interview with Nokupiwa Gedze, Hamburg, September 15, 2014.
Author interview with Greyling.
Author interview with Hofmeyr and Danais.
Author interview with Greyling.
Author interview with Hofmeyr and Danais.
Author interview with Hofmeyr and Danais.
Author interview with Gedze.
Author interview with Hofmeyr and Danais.
Author interview with Gedze.
Author interview with Nozeti Makubalo, Hamburg, September 16, 2014.
Author interview with Gedze.
Author interview with Gedze.
Author interview with Hofmeyr and Danais.
Mvunabandi (2008:77) indicates that they may extend to females, in the case of those who die at an advanced age, as well as for women diviners.
Author interview with Gedze.
Author interview with Makubalo.
Interview with Cebo Mvubu, Hamburg, September 15, 2014.
Author interview with Hofmeyr and Danais.
Author interview with Hofmeyr and Danais.
I am using Charles Peirce's definition of an index as a sign “which refers to the Object it denotes by virtue of being really affected by that Object” (1955:102).
There is a still further level of possible implication. Although isiXhosa speakers historically covered their bodies in red ochre, and those who continued to follow this custom in the late nineteenth century (who were known as “Red People”) were normally those who rejected Western influences, the allusions to Christianity in the Keiskamma Guernica nevertheless invite one to read clay in light of its biblical associations. Allusions to clay would seem in particular to reiterate references to original sin conveyed through the inclusion of Adam and Eve in the work: “By the sweat of your face You will eat bread, Till you return to the ground, Because from it you were taken; For you are dust, And to dust you shall return” (Genesis 3:19).
Author interview with Hofmeyr and Danais.
Author interview with Hofemeyr and Danais.