September 28, 2006
The Christology of the Keiskamma Altarpiece
— Scott Haldeman
One evening recently, I visited St. James Cathedral in downtown Chicago. The cathedral's sanctuary is handsome but not ornate: a painted ceiling around the border of which many 'Ossanahs ring; two steps up to the ambo with two reading desks and a large open space; and two more steps to the altar, a freestanding plain wooden table. And then, the object that had drawn me there: the Keiskamma Altarpiece, screening the far end of the sanctuary, and reaching nearly to the rough-hewn crucifix suspended from the ceiling.
Thirteen feet high and twenty-two feet wide when fully opened, the altarpiece, with its vibrant colors and intricate handwork, is a stunning artifact. Modeled after a fifteenth-century painted altarpiece depicting Christ as co-sufferer with those dying from the plague, the Keiskamma Altarpiece is a work in thread and bead by 120 women in the village in rural South Africa from which the object takes its name. This altarpiece is a reflection of life that endures despite the ravages of HIV/AIDS.
The women who created this work of art have developed a Christology in the face of their own suffering and through their own endurance. The traditional crucified Christ on the closed panels of the altarpiece is rendered here as a woman ancestor in traditional garb. Instead of the tomb of Christ on the panel at the bottom of the altarpiece is the story of the sickness, death, and burial of the son of the village matriarch. The beatified saints from tradition are replaced by two living "saints" flanking the central Christ-figure: the matriarch and another powerful grandmother who, after the death of the matriarch's son, demanded that the village transform its response to HIV/AIDS. From this point forward, they decided, all pregnant women would take the drugs that lessen the chance of passing the virus on to their children; all who needed antiretrovirals would have them; all who were dying would be given hospice care, so as to be allowed to die with dignity. The stigma of the illness was what these women have confronted and attempted to overcome.
Opening the panels reveals further stories. The creation — not of the globe, but of Keiskamma — is imaged as a swirling sea that solidifies into a map of the village. The local prophet who rises each morning and dances his dream so as to share the wisdom of the gods and ancestors is there. Also depicted is the tree of life, in which names of those who have died are stitched in defiance of the pressure to deny the illness, and in defiance of the power of forgetting. Beyond this is a scene of daily life in the village — a wedding, a feast, villagers tending cattle — and of the angels, black angels, who guard each ordinary moment.
And then yet another layer: Where one expects scenes of resurrection, there are photographs of grandmothers and their grandchildren. Here is the promised future: the women who insisted on justice and compassion over denial and shame, and the children who know death so intimately. They are surrounded by images of local plants in intricate beadwork, symbolizing light and fullness of life. In the center is a nurse, a healer, surrounded by her three grandsons. Two among them are twins, one of whom was born HIV positive. This child's name encapsulates the meaning of the scene: Hope.
These women theologize both with their refusals and their affirmations. These women, skilled artists, speak beyond words, that they will not be ignored, and will not be silenced. They place the death and life that is their story before us as a story of death and resurrection. They rupture expectations of what an altarpiece should be: One beholds not a traditional image of Christ, but a Christ bearing the faces, breasts, thighs, blood, and skin of these women. And for these women, resurrection is not a miraculous empty tomb but a new way to live in relationship to HIV that will ensure survival, life abundant for their grandchildren.
The Keiskamma Altarpiece is a parable for our own day, rupturing expectations of liturgical space, ecclesial art forms, the roll call of saints, and the faces of Christ. But it is precisely the tension between what is expected and what is actually found — this astonishing testament to divine presence in circumstances that might otherwise be ignored — that allows some believers to see God, Christ, and suffering humanity anew and more clearly. Such is the power of art that reimagines old forms to speak grace.
For further information:
The Keiskamma Altarpiece has left Chicago, but will soon be displayed again in Los Angeles, at the Fowler Museum of UCLA and several churches in the LA metropolitan area. For more about the Keiskamma Altarpiece and its North American tour, contact Edwin Bayrd, Associate Director, UCLA AIDS Institute, at email@example.com. And for further information about, and images of, the Altarpiece, please visit http://www.keiskamma.org/index.php?m=Altarpiece or http://www.saintjamescathedral.org/images/Keiskamma/KeiskammaBrochure.pdf.
Scott Haldeman is Assistant Professor of Worship at Chicago Theological Seminary, and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.