Writing Art History Since 2002

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Allan Webb hall & the Atherstone room, monument | Grahamstown

The Eastern Cape collective, the Keiskamma Art Project, a group of 120 rural embroiderers, have returned this year to the National Arts Festival (Allan Webb Hall) with a large altarpiece that takes as its pre-text German artist Mathias Grünewald’s famous multi-panelled Isenheim Altarpiece.The catalogue essay on the Keiskamma Altarpiece notes: “It is believed that Grünewald painted the fear and terror of Christ’s crucifixion for hospice patients in Germany suffering from ergot poisoning, which at the time, like AIDS today, was incurable. Yet, like Grünewald’s altarpiece, which opens out to display hope, joy and resurrection, so the Keiskamma Altarpiece unwraps to reflect redemption and restoration through images of abundance, health and vitality”.Nevertheless, one should be wary of attributing either the Grünewald or the Keiskamma Altarpiece with naïve positivism, even though the latter, having seemingly done away with the former’s vivid evocation of suffering and mortification, might precisely suggest such positivism. Although the Keiskamma Altarpiece has sublimated the dark theological ground of Grünewald’s Altarpiece, which suggests that physical pain is the hallowed road to spiritual salvation, this dark underground keeps returning to the surface — short-circuiting superficial or triumphantalist hopes for joy.Contra the suggestion by the catalogue that “upon opening the first set of panels, the darkness of despair triumphantly gives way to imagery of hope and spirituality”, one might rather suggest that the crowdedness and abundance of the imagery precisely evokes feelings of anxiety.As the art historian Aby Warburg has penetratingly argued, images of vitality are always entangled with the daemonic terror they aim to sublimate. As such, the Keiskamma Altarpiece is a site “of superimpositions and crossings among heterogeneous forces of which they are not necessarily the reflection but with which they sometimes (fruitfully) maintain relationships of resistance or conflict” — to quote Philippe-Alain Michaud’s interpretation of Warburg’s method of reading images.Unfortunately energetic relationships or crossings are mostly lacking in the works on display in Paperworks (The Atherstone Room, Monument), an exhibition purportedly introducing young and aspiring Eastern Cape artists. Firstly, one fails to detect any stringent curatorial selection and arrangement, as (often derivative) artworks have been chosen and displayed rather randomly. Secondly, it is nothing short of obscene when an unestablished artist puts a R7000 price-tag on a small digital print. This obscene price-tag sadly suggests that aspiration is irreducibly tied to vanity, narcissism, and avarice. Gerhard Schoeman

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