A contemporary Madonna from the Eastern Cape: Female agency in the Keiskamma Art Project’s Rose Altarpiece



Rose Altarpiece, Keiskamma Art Project, HIV/AIDS, Schongauer, Virgin of the Rose Bower


The Keiskamma Art Project, based in Hamburg in the Eastern Cape, produced the Rose Altarpiece in 2005. A work modelled on the Virgin of the Rose Bower altarpiece in the Church of the Dominicans in Colmar, France, that features a panel made by Martin Schongauer in 1473, the Rose Altarpiece substitutes the fifteenth-century rendition of the Virgin Mary in an enclosed garden with a representation of Nokwanda Makubalo, a project member, with a child whom she had adopted. The Rose Altarpiece may best be understood as a “parody” of the Virgin of the Rose Bower altarpiece in the sense that this term is defined by Linda Hutcheon  (1985), including her concept that the various likenesses between a representation and its source serve in fact to emphasise their differences from one another. Particularly distinctive in this instance is the difference between the idea of virtuous womanhood  conveyed in the two works. Whereas the iconography that informs the Virgin Mary’s representation in images such as Schongauer’s panel was not grounded in the empowerment of females, the Rose Altarpiece represents women as having agency and capacity to effect social transformations. Made in the context of escalating HIV/AIDS infections, the South African work gives visual form and shape to “feminist ubuntu” in its suggestion of the way in which women have sought to negotiate this health crisis.






Themed section: Material narratives