Creativity and Crisis

Common Threads

Reflections from the Festival: Depicting Devastation

By Emma Backe

The women from the Keiskamma Trust hail from Hamburg, South Africa, where they’ve formed an artistic collective that addresses poverty and illness in the country. Their piece, the Keiskamma After Guernica tapestry is chillingly poignant, deeply evocative, and eerily familiar. Inspired by Pablo Picasso’s Guernica, viewers approach with caution, hesitant of the macabre cubist representations of contorted bodies in the throes of a devastating blitzkrieg. The artists of the Keiskamma Trust, which is located on the Eastern Cape of South Africa, aim to address a similar form of wreckage and desolation. South Africa has the highest prevalence of HIV/AIDS in the world. A staggering 5.6 million citizens are infected with the virus. Just within the town of Hamburg, where the Trust is located, an estimated 30 percent of the residents are infected. Doctor Carol Hofmeyr began the Keiskamma Art Project in 2000, when the HIV/AIDS virus first began to spread. At the time, the lack of resources was so vast she served over 26 hospitals in the province. Initially Hofmeyr and other medical practitioners were uncertain about how the disease was spread, and struggled while thousands of patients inexplicably fell ill and died. Hofmeyr attempted to serve especially vulnerable rural communities but became increasingly desperate as she watched entire villages wiped out by the pandemic.

When treatment was developed, and doctors and scientists began to distribute anti-retrovirals (ARVs) and aid around the world, South Africa faced multiple structural challenges in preventing the continued spread of AIDS and providing adequate treatment for its citizens. During the 1990s, the president, Thabo Mbeki, and the government adopted an AIDS denialist approach and attempted to find an “African solution to an African problem.” Due to the government’s position, ARVs were not made widely available in South Africa until 2003, at which point those affected by the disease had swelled in number, and innumerable men, women, and children had perished. Zackie Achmat and the Treatment Action Campaign (TAC) fought to destigmatize the disease, spread awareness and education, and protect the rights of HIV- positive South Africans. ARVs are one of the most effective treatments for HIV/AIDS, but the drugs were expensive and difficult to acquire, so TAC also advocated to make ARVs more affordable for the impoverished masses. The drugs, however, can be as debilitating as the disease itself without proper rest, hydration, and nutrition—privileges that many South Africans do not possess because of marginalization, racism, and discrimination. Carol Hofmeyr would often pay for the ARVs for her patients out of her own wages, willing to sacrifice her time and money to help her patients.

Hofmeyr’s experience became increasingly bleak because it seemed that no help was coming and no media attention was being drawn to the public health crisis. In an attempt to spread awareness about the condition of the citizens of Hamburg, Hofmeyr gathered a group of local South African artists to construct a tapestry that would memorialize and address the tragedy. The collective of female artists agreed that the slaughter of Guernica was a strong reflection of the situation in their town because of the common sense of meaningless destruction present in the two disasters. They used elements of the original piece while adding their own unique artistic interpretations, utilizing traditional materials like felt and indigenous quilting and stitching techniques. Hofmeyr is represented twice in the tapestry—once clothed in a white dress, head thrown back to the heavens in a silent mournful cry, and once as the spectral woman emerging from the window, holding a candle to alert the world to their need. Women in traditional African clothing, their dresses sewn from blankets used for patients in the Keiskamma clinic and hospice, gather at the bottom of the left corner in a collective wake, graves of the deceased lining the bottom of the fabric, each inscribed in minute handwriting with a name. A grandmother approaches, carrying her ailing grandchild in the hope of finding treatment. The anguish in the faces of the women is mirrored by the agony of the cow. The animal’s neck is wounded and bloody in a sacrifice to the ancestors, begging them for assistance and guidance when it seemed as though their benevolent spirits had abandoned the people of Hamburg.

The tapestry is framed with the profiles of men and women weeping, some silently screaming their regret and anger. The simple portraits and representations cut through the artifice and politics of the situation, demonstrating the pathos of those affected. Heads, pale and ghostly, seem to cast back and forth, wondering when aid will come and why it hasn’t come sooner. The artists intentionally included a sun above the scene, signaling that there is still hope amidst the darkness. As Unathi Meslane, one of the artists, commented, “We had so many people that were dying; the community was just having funerals weekend after weekend. Sadness, you know. The fact that there's that piece [Keiskamma After Guernica], it just allows people to grieve, those who did not manage to, and then it's also a healing tool for the community at large.”

Today, ARVs are widely distributed throughout South Africa, and doctors travel all over the country to provide treatment. TAC, among other South African AIDS-related organizations, has helped develop education programs on prevention and HIV/AIDS literacy, empowering citizens to advocate for themselves. Structural violence, a remnant of apartheid, continues to hinder treatment. Poverty—unsanitary living conditions in townships and their distance from hospitals and treatment centers—is another obstacle to treatment. But Keiskamma has established clinics in and around Hamburg to treat HIV/AIDS patients. Some of the patients from the beginning of the pandemic are now staff members themselves: artists and care-givers that survived and continue to spread the spirit of Ubuntu, a philosophy that encourages friendship and love between cultures through the exchange of the arts, throughout the community. The organization is dedicated to providing care, treatment and sympathy. Members of the community create pots and vases as repositories of memory and sorrow, and perform songs to celebrate and commemorate the lives of loved ones. Unathi Melane describes the Keiskamma attitude: “You lose yourself in the service of others.” In the face of loss there is much to be gained from forging new connections, creating art that provides solace, and reminding the world of what still needs to be done.

Keiskamma’s website: 

Emma Backe interned at the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage in 2012, where she worked on the Creativity and Crisis program.  She is a senior at Vassar College, where she studies anthropology and English literature.

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