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From South Africa to the Near North Side

By Justin Sondak in Arts & Entertainment on Aug 24, 2006 10:49PM

Direct from the 16th International AIDS Conference, the Keiskamma Altarpiece, sharing a message of suffering and triumph, has arrived in Chicago. Over 120 South African women and men from a region particularly stricken by poverty and AIDS collaborated on this massive, multi-paneled work of embroidery, beads, wire sculpture, and photographs.

keiskamma.jpgThe 13 foot by 22 foot collaboration was inspired by the Isenheim Altarpiece, painted around 500 years ago in Alsace, France during a horrible poisoning epidemic that would ultimately be eradicated. From a region of South Africa hit particularly hard by poverty and AIDS, the Keiskamma Altarpiece offers similar comfort and the hope that new treatments can make this plague obsolete.

When closed, the altar appropriates New Testament crucifixion images, depicting local figures grieving over lost loved ones. When opened, we see an idealized village scene, a bounty of food, worship and village activity. In its center are life-sized photographs of grandparents and the children who may one day know a world without AIDS.

Chicago is one of only three North American cities to receive this work, and St. James Cathedral has put it on display for a unique lunch break and art history lesson.

The Keiskamma Altarpiece is on display at St. James Cathedral, 65 East Huron Street, noon – 4pm daily through September 20 (but not on August 26 and September 9). More information at

Image via St. James Catheral