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Bonzer Words!: The Owl House

"Deep in the mountains, in the Cape Province of South Africa, there is a tiny isolated village on the edge of the Great Karroo called Nieu-Bethseda.

Some years ago, a lonely woman called Helen Martins died in this little village, but not before her strange creation, “The Owl House”, brought her troubled dreams to fruition and made her name famous,'' writes Barbara Durlacher.

See the Owl House on YouTube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6rY5c7kqk6s

Helen was born in Nieu-Bethseda in 1897, old photographs show a shy, intelligent young woman. As a girl she trained as a teacher in the small country town of Graaff Reinet, where she taught for a short time. Later she contracted a short-lived marriage, but despite their shared interest in acting and literature, the marriage did not last and after a few years the couple divorced, an unusual step in view of the rigid social attitudes of those days and the social stigma accompanying divorce. It might have been her divorced state which laid the foundations for Helen’s ostracism, as she was isolated by the locals when she returned to Nieu-Bethseda despite devotedly nursing her elderly parents until they died.

After her brief foray into the world, she spent the rest of her life in this remote community, living in the small, tin-roofed family home, alone and friendless, except for two coloured labourers who became her closest associates. Perhaps it’s a measure of her strangeness that from this time onwards, she directed all her energies and considerable determination into creating the extraordinary artistic achievement that is now not only the single most important asset of the tiny Karroo town, but is known and celebrated as far away as New York.
The enigmatic nature of her creations and the utilitarian medium in which she chose to execute them – a chicken wire frame covered by roughcast concrete – created a dramatically different collection where businesslike ordinariness is imposed upon imaginative fantasy. A detailed study of the groups shows that each piece was placed deliberately to create a pattern and illustrate her ideas. Being particularly fond of the works of Omar Khayyam and William Blake, and with a strong religious emphasis in her early upbringing, these combinations produced an emblematic language of sun-faces, owls and other images.

Inside the house, pieces of broken mirror and roughly ground glass were interspersed with painted bands of colour to reflect light. Pieces of broken mirror set in the walls created kaleidoscopic mosaics and reflect fragmented images of the interior, while the coloured glass windows increase the impressionistic play of light and shade.

Outside the house, in the “Camel Yard” a composition of nearly life-size camels known as “The Road to Mecca” or the “Road to Bethlehem” has central place and, on a smaller scale walking, kneeling, and prostrate figures, representing pilgrims or the Three Wise Men raise their arms in wonder as they point at the star in an “East” designated by Helen Martins. The groups are surrounded by a collection of fantastical beasts, and it is thought Helen was attempting to integrate her fascination with the Orient, and Christianity with this composition.

As she grew older and odder, she withdrew almost entirely from the community. She spent her tiny income on materials and the pitifully small wages she paid her assistants. Without other income she could barely afford to eat and suffered badly from malnutrition, which may have contributed to her weird visionary images and increased her eccentricity.

In earlier years she had created a series of elaborately bottle-skirted “ladies” in the yard which were possibly intended to portray hostesses welcoming visitors to her fantasy world, but her growing withdrawal from others was clearly demonstrated by the tall mesh fence and a spiky stand of cacti guarding the front entrance which has a sadly forlorn air, redolent of troubled dreams and a lonely soul.

Aged 79, life became increasingly difficult for her. She realised that her work was nearly finished and that the limited space in her yard was almost filled by her creations. Her funds were exhausted and her ostracism from the community was so intense that she exchanged barely a word from year to year. Desperate and frightened and with her mind temporarily unhinged, she decided to end her life. She swallowed a large dose of caustic soda and suffered a hideously painful end, lingering in agony for several days until death released her.
Now the little house is a national monument and a protected building. Visitors come from all over the world to view Helen’s strange creations, some lingering to savour the special ambience of this dusty little village, ringed by mountains on the edge of the Great Karroo.

© Barbara Durlacher


Barbara writes for Bonzer magazine. Please visit www.bonzer.org.au


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