Citation for Carol Hofmeyr: Honorary Graduand



                                                                        By Professor Paul Maylam

In the year 2000 Carol Hofmeyr and her husband, Justus, moved from Gauteng to East London, also buying as a weekend seaside cottage a derelict house in the small coastal village of Hamburg, midway between East London and Port Alfred. Rarely can the purchase of a weekend cottage have had such significant, positive consequences for a community.

At the time Hamburg was a deeply impoverished village – most of its residents unemployed; the main source of income government grants and perlemoen poaching; no proper access to water or medical care; high levels of petty crime and alcoholism. And HIV/AIDS.

Carol Hofmeyr was struck by these dire circumstances, and set about making positive interventions, drawing on her two main areas of expertise: first, in the field of medicine, having qualified as a doctor at Wits University and having worked at the Alexandra Health Centre. And second, in fine art, which she took up in the 1990s, obtaining a masters diploma at what was then the Technikon Witwatersrand, specialising in print-making.

Carol believes that to heal a community one needs to provide both medical care and care of the creative spirit. This philosophy she has applied to the Hamburg community in remarkable, inspiring ways over the past dozen years or so.

She began in small ways, teaching crafts to a small group of women who collected plastic bags and crocheted them into hats, placemats and bags. Then came embroidery lessons – Carol providing needles and thread for women to sew cushion covers. This was the beginning of the Keiskamma Art Project that would rapidly expand and in time gain world renown. In 2002 it held its first two exhibitions – one in Newtown, Johannesburg, and another in the UK, in Oxford and the Cotswolds. In time it would be the embroidery work that came to be so widely acclaimed – as we shall see later.

The second arm of Carol’s work, medical care, took off in Hamburg in 2004. Although she had not practised as a doctor for many years, she went back to work as a primary care medical officer at a clinic in the Peddie district – at the same time witnessing the rising AIDS death toll in Hamburg and bemoaning the absence of medical facilities to tackle the epidemic.

So, with the help of Eunice Mangwane, she established an HIV/AIDS programme in the village – converting an old house into an AIDS treatment centre; sourcing anti-retroviral medication privately, securing funding for it, and administering it, initially to eight patients. As with the art project, this medical programme would grow significantly over time, the centre disseminating treatment to more and more patients, as well as providing support and counselling to those living with HIV. Carol went on to train a team of village health workers to operate in the entire Peddie district – a team that has grown to 50 such workers, who operate alongside committed doctors, nurses, counsellors and volunteers, with a special focus on poor patients who cannot easily access government programmes.

In the meantime the art project became ever more prominent. From the small beginning of cushion covers there came to be created some magnificent large-scale tapestries.

The first, modelled on the eleventh-century Bayeux Tapestry, depicted the history of the Eastern Cape – from precolonial times, through the colonial and apartheid eras, to the arrival of democracy in 1994. This tapestry, over 120 metres long, now hangs in the parliament building in Cape Town.

The second, the most famed and acclaimed, is the stunning Keiskamma Altarpiece. Carol Hofmeyr conceived of the idea on seeing the Isenheim Altarpiece in eastern France, created in the 1500s in what was then German territory to illustrate deliverance from a plague known as St Anthony’s Fire that was afflicting communities at the time.

Carol’s idea was to adapt the theme to depict the impact of AIDS on Hamburg. The Keiskamma Altarpiece is a massive work – about four metres high and seven metres wide – comprising a triptych with hinged panels that open and close. The panels incorporate embroidery, beading and photographs, illustrating the pain and loss wrought by AIDS, but also offering a vision of hope and restoration. The story tells of the resolve of the women of Hamburg to persevere in the midst of HIV/AIDS – and the altarpiece itself is a manifestation of that resolve, its creation involving 130 women and four men in six months of full-time work.

The Keiskamma Altarpiece has toured the world – Toronto, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle, Washington, London, Durban, Stellenbosch, and most important of all, Grahamstown at the 2005 festival. It is currently on its way, appropriately, to Hamburg in Germany.

Another adaptation of a famous art-work has been the Guernica tapestry. Again, Carol’s idea – to draw on Picasso’s Guernica painting of the bombing of a village during the Spanish civil war – invoked to express the pain, despair and death that comes with AIDS and poverty, but also the courage and resilience of the Hamburg community.

The last Keiskamma tapestry to mention is one depicting the history of Rhodes University, specially commissioned by the university, over 40 metres long, now hanging in the university council chamber, on the first floor of the main administration building, under the clock tower.

There is more to this community project than art and medical care. Under the auspices of the Keiskamma Trust, established in 2003 and for long directed by Carol Hofmeyr, there is an education programme that supports crèches and a growing number of after-school centres, and reaches out to over 400 children in several villages each day. There is, too, a music academy which provides music tuition to children.

While Carol has been the key player in this project, she would be the first to acknowledge the vital role played by many other people. To mention just a few: Noseti Makubalo, one of the founding artists; Eunice Mangwane and Mavis Zita who both helped to found the health programme; Noluvo Xhotenyi, now the health manager, and Thabang Meslane, the director. And not to forget the support of Carol’s husband, and their two sons, Robert and Graeme. Many of these key  supporters are here today.

For her work Carol Hofmeyr has received many awards: the Herald woman of the year award; Shoprite Checkers woman of the year for art, and runner-up in medicine; the Ellen Kuzwayo Award from the University of Johannesburg; an honorary fellowship from the Royal College of Physicians in London; and in 2011 the Business and Arts South Africa Premier Award.

Rhodes University is proud to be the first to award Carol Hofmeyr an honorary doctorate. In recent years the university has come to lay greater stress on the involvement of staff and students in community engagement. Carol Hofmeyr must surely be a model and inspiration for those pursuing such engagement – creating spaces where art and health intersect; fostering pride, self-respect and hope in an impoverished, often despairing community; and doing much to empower any number of people, especially women and children, the most vulnerable members of our troubled society.

Mr Chancellor, I have the honour to request you to confer on Carol Wynne Hofmeyr the degree of Doctor of Laws, honoris causa.

Source:  Communications