AIDS alterpiece: From sorrow to celebration 

Of the many scenes on a huge altarpiece recently installed in Grace Cathedral, what stays with you is the harrowing embroidered image of an AIDS victim going from a hospital bed to a coffin in the over-filled cemetery. These pictures are relatively small compared with the rest of the Keiskamma Altarpiece, but they make up the simple "AIDS equals death" formula that has been the story of Hamburg, a village in South Africa’s poor Eastern Cape Province.

Created by Hamburg’s 120 women and some men, the 13-foot by 22-foot altarpiece comes to San Francisco as part of its North American tour, which is sponsored by Chicago’s St. James Cathedral. It makes a lot of sense in Grace Cathedral, which already houses the AIDS Interfaith Chapel, with its NAMES Project AIDS quilt and an altarpiece triptych created by artist Keith Haring before he died of AIDS.

Keiskamma Altarpiece, named after the river that flows through the village, has three layers. When closed, it reveals a triptych that imitates the Isenheim Altarpiece created by Matthias Grünewald in the 15th century for a hospice where patients were dying of ergot poisoning. Just like then, when the disease had no cure, AIDS afflicts the world today. Just like then, the altarpiece artists hope, this disease will be understood and eradicated.

Unlike Grunewald’s religious work, the Keiskamma Altarpiece combines symbolism with documentary-style realism. On the first panel, a widow in mourning with a cross in the center is flanked by portraits of two older women who have been important pillars of the Hamburg society. The women reappear in the last layer of the altarpiece, where they are photographed with their grandchildren, a poignant sign of the missing generation in between.

The layer between, however, depicts the idealized life in the village with birds on a tree, cows in the field and fish in the river. The main figure of this world is Gaba, a dancing prophet who leaves his swirling footprints — all created convincingly with vibrant embroidery — in the sand.

With its language of grief and hope, the Keiskamma Altarpiece is a beautiful and memorable work of art that brings sorrows of one community half the world away to a city that, sadly, can relate.

The altarpiece will be on view until May 29. Eunice Manwane, one of the artists and an AIDS counselor who is depicted in the altarpiece, will be present at Grace Cathedral’s Community Celebration on Monday at 7 p.m.

Keiskamma Altarpiece

Where: Grace Cathedral, 1100 California St., San Francisco

When: 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. Mondays through Fridays; 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturdays; 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. Sundays; closes May 29

Admission: Free

Contact: (415) 749-6300 or

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Staff Report

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A daily newspaper covering San Francisco, San Mateo County and serving Alameda, Marin and Santa Clara counties.
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