Doctor proves art is good medicine

Rhodes>Perspective>2013 Archive

In the tiny hamlet of Hamburg in the Eastern Cape on the Keiskamma River, a small community ravaged by poverty and HIV offers living proof that art is good medicine. Healthcare and hope became intertwined when doctor/artist Dr Carol Baker (Hofmeyr) moved from Johannesburg to the Eastern Cape in 2000.

Her grown-up children were living in Cape Town and she relocated with her husband, Prof Justus Hofmeyr, to East London, where he works in Cecilia Makiwane and Frere hospitals and has been conducting obstetric research in under-resourced communities.

The pair visited Hamburg, a once-popular holiday destination before the houses were sold to the now-defunct government of the Ciskei, and, on a whim, bought a derelict house, one of several that had previously been owned by farming families in the Eastern Cape.

“I was never a good doctor,” she says, cryptically. “Having studied medicine I married my husband and had two children in quick succession. I practised medicine, first in Alexandra Clinic and then in Coronation Hospital (now Rahima Moosa Hospital).

I remember those days as being terrible. I couldn’t cope with both the illness I saw and the system. I dealt with disabled children at Coronation, and they were at the bottom of the pile in the days when many schools were closed during the struggle, and the facilities for them were extremely poor, as they are today in many areas.”

Feeling dissatisfied and depressed, Dr Baker took up English literature studies and qualified with honours. She decided to become a librarian and then realised that ‘all that cataloguing’ would not satisfy, either. So she did her honours in psychology, but that smacked too much of the medicine she was trying to leave behind.

She spent a year in England while her husband studied at Oxford University and went to art college part time. A light went on and upon her return, she did her masters in fine arts, at what is now the University of Johannesburg. “I loved it,” she says.

“But in all those years, I could not work properly. As an A-type personality, I kept myself busy, but still felt somehow unhappy.”

She finally saw a psychiatrist who had a shocking revelation: she had been suffering from postnatal depression since her last child in 1977. “I was very shocked to think of this,” she recalls. But he prescribed antidepressants and she found that as she went onto the medication, her spirits began to lift and with that, so did her interest in work.

Paper prayers

While she was completing her fine arts degree, she had begun working with an organisation called Artist Proof Studio in Newtown. The studio had begun a project called Paper Prayers, which modelled the Japanese custom of making print etchings as messages of wellbeing. The idea had been imported from Boston in the US, where the gay community was being ravaged by AIDS.

“In the years after the birth of my children, I found that the only thing that would give me a sense of self-esteem was to knit. So I knitted and knitted – these long creations that somehow helped me to see myself as a person.”

This realisation of how making something with one’s hands could give a person a sense of ‘being’, resonated with the Paper Prayers project, and shaped what would later become the inspiration for Dr Baker’s work in Hamburg.

Her time in Newtown coincided with the days where the South African government, in particular the Department of Arts and Culture, needed to bolster its flagging image following the Sarafina II controversy, where R14.27m was spent on an ill-contrived musical about AIDS that was supposed to reach and educate young people about the dangers of the disease.

Its dismal failure and public outcry over moneys misspent prompted the department to latch onto the Paper Prayers project as a way to save face, and it provided funds to extend the initiative into all nine provinces.

“I didn’t realise at the time that it was just a big salvage operation for the department,” she laughs.

But as she travelled in the provinces, Dr Baker discovered the art of embroidery, which would come to play an important role in her later work.

Having spent a year polishing its image, the department summarily withdrew funding, although the Newtown Artist Proof Studio still operates the very successful Paper Prayers today.


A different world

Once in Hamburg, Dr Baker discovered a very different world from the one she’d left behind in Johannesburg. As she made friends in the community, her eyes opened to the abject poverty in which people lived. “I was 50 and could not believe I had spent so many years oblivious to the real-life horrors apartheid had wrought.”

She decided to start an embroidery project, with the aim of bringing to the women in the area the same kind of therapy that had helped her to survive during her years of depression. Her friends warned her that no one would come. It was spring tide, the only opportunity for the community to make some money – stealing abalone. “Many of them ended up in jail,” she recalls with a headshake.

But come they did. Within a year, there were 150 women making embroidery art. It was the beginning of something that would change the face of Hamburg, bringing work and a sense of self-worth that had been absent for decades, to women in the area.

As she started the work, she found that more and more people came to the fore to get involved in the project and soon, she was supported by a team of helpers and leaders, in particular, a woman called Noseti Makubalo, who has become a firm friend and who has played a key role in the way the project has evolved.

Although deeply satisfied by her work in the artistic project, Dr Baker was aware of all the illnesses caused by the conditions in which people were living. “There was no doctor there and it gradually dawned on me that I could not stand aside when there was so much sickness around me.”

Despite her reservations, Dr Baker started practising medicine in an informal way. The clinics were poorly stocked and she bought medicines herself. At that stage, she was under the misguided impression that the community, being so far away from the cities, would somehow be protected from AIDS.

But in 2003, young migrant labour husbands started coming home to die from the AIDS they had contracted away from home. The community changed seemingly overnight, as the disease spilled into the heart of Hamburg.

There were no ARVs and Dr Baker again used her own money and that of friends who would sponsor AIDS patients, to buy ARVs. The first patients went on ARVs in around 2004, which was very early for the Eastern Cape. But the initiative was struggling to survive and Dr Baker formed an NGO to obtain funding.

“Then we were lucky!” she says. A President’s Emergency Plan For AIDS Relief (PEPFAR)-funded initiative from East London needed a rural clinic as a pilot and in 2005, they came in with funding, support and ARVs.

Soon, patients were coming from far and wide to the only clinic that could provide the ‘miracle medicine’ that could cure the incurable disease.

While the ARVs were doing their job, the idea arose that all kinds of miracle cures were available in Hamburg and people began arriving with ailments such as stroke and other diseases. The team, which had now grown to a large contingent of hardworking and committed people, had to overturn that misconception.

As ‘bakkie loads’ of dying people arrived for treatment, a hospice was opened.

Retired matron, Mavis Zita, “a nurse with old-school commitment, for whom nothing was too dirty or untouchable,” (now deep into her 70s and still working), worked tirelessly to treat very ill patients.

It was backbreaking work, and until 2010, when the new health minister implemented the far-reaching ARV programme, the team laboured from early morning until deep into the night to treat patients.

Art telling the story

Against that backdrop, the Keiskamma Trust, a formal structure that had been formed to manage the artwork being produced, was turning out embroideries that told the stories that were unfolding in the midst of the epidemic.

They are arresting and moving. One, called ‘Take me also for your child’, depicts an older woman taking in an orphan – a tragic but commonplace outcome of the epidemic.

Many have gone on to achieve international fame, having been displayed in churches and cathedrals around the world, while others hang in museums and other historical buildings.

The Keiskamma Tapestry tells the intricate history of the Eastern frontier and the British conquest of the Xhosa. In making it, the women developed a sense of belonging after decades of displacement. It now wraps around the new Legislature at the South African Parliament.

The Keiskamma Guernica, based on Picasso’s famous Guernica, which decried the bombing of the Guernica market during WWII, is described on the Trust website as ‘an example of all places and times when the most vulnerable are sacrificed by governments concerned only with pursuing their own agendas, and people who have no compassion for the poor. Unlike the original Guernica, ours depicts not an instant of horror but rather a slow eating away at the whole fabric of a community’.

Work on the Keiskamma Altarpiece, modelled on the Renaissance artist Grunwald’s Issenheim Altarpiece, commenced before ARVs made their appearance. The women drew and planned a vision of what Hamburg would be like with no illness and no suffering. Its completion coincided with the arrival of PEPFAR and ARVs, which gave the women a sense that a miracle had occurred.

Dr Baker is contemplative as she reflects: “Looking back, I can see many miracles. I could never have imagined how successful the art would become, or how many people’s lives would be changed along the way. I certainly didn’t plan it. It was as though a wave took us. We just flowed along with it.”

In 2010, management of the Keiskamma Trust was transferred to the community and is now a thriving entity that offers support to people living with HIV, and has extended its projects to include music and educational programmes.

In August last year, Dr Baker hung up her medical hat and is now focusing on fundraising and further development of the art projects.

In February, Rhodes University announced that it is to confer an honourary degree to Dr Baker for her groundbreaking work in fighting poverty and HIV/AIDS.

Caption: Dr Carol Baker next to one of the works created by the embroiderers of Keiskamma Trust

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