We took a road trip a few years ago, a brilliant idea of my dearest friend Lisna. The road trip was complete by listening to real girly tunes, travelling unfamiliar roads with enthusiasm, stopping at petrol stations in strange little towns, with strange names and strange people serving strange food, and of course getting lost.
We were excited about the prospect of experiencing arts and culture in the streets and theatres of Grahamstown (Eastern Cape) followed by the unknown territory of the Klein Karoo and its barren yet beautiful winter landscape, in some areas a spooky, dry, deserted landscape with sheep scattered over the fields. We stayed in old farmhouses dating back to the 1800′s, with graveyards exhibiting birth dates from the 1700′s, with the sadness of little gravestones in separate sections for the stillborns. We lived on a farm with an old jail where the slaves were held captive… Our nights consisted of eating ‘lams bredie’ (lambs stew) and drinking really good red wine, telling silly stories in front of the fire. Tipsy and brave we would explore the graveyards at midnight hoping for some sort of super natural encounter of a once Afrikaner Boer still roaming his land, or most likely the slaves haunting the space that caused them grieve and pain.
We visited many towns, big and small, known and less known; some were hidden in the mountains far away from modern society. One such place was Nieu Bethesda, known for the peculiar home of Helen Martins, appropriately named the Owl House. Ms Martins, born 1897, lived a strange life, surrounded by conservative Calvinistic thinkers that were not open to her way of thinking, leaving her to seclude herself and to live and express herself by making her art.
Her craftsman, Koos Malgas, assisted her in making her sculptures, a racial relationship not quite perceived as normal for that time. Ms Martins lost her sight due to working with fine glass, her signature style, this resulted in her developing a symbiotic relationship with Koos Malgas; the artist (conceptualising the ideas, having a vision) and the craftsman (having skills and translating her vision).
The Owl House was phenomenal, but what struck me were the graveyards and the town layout in Nieu Bethesda. Firstly, there are about 60 citizens in the main town, and thousands in the township right next to it, with the town as the main ‘job provider’ for the area. The graveyard for the town is of course a ‘whites only’ graveyard, dating back to the first people that founded the town in the 1800’s. The town’s graveyard is split in two, I am unsure why but my assumption is based on the dates and the design and material used for the gravestones; there was the really old section, and the newer section divided by a lane of trees. We walked through the grave yard, where I found a few old Pretorius gravestones, born in the 1700’s, however not related to me. The gravestone I appreciated most was that of Ms Martins, not for its size but for its authenticity and beauty. Her gravestone was surrounded by large granite stones, and here lied Ms Martins in a small, almost to be mistaken for a child’s grave, with a modest yet beautifully decorated owl statue as her gravestone, made by Malgas and his people. In death she was still rejected by her ‘own’ people.
When we explored the township, we discovered their graveyard, where the graves are decorated not by an impressive granite gravestone, but by their most significant belongings, a coffee cup, a pot, a toy, a ceramic ornament. The people are poor, they can not afford such ‘luxuries’, but I found it so much more appealing and meaningful than a granite gravestone. To my surprise, we found the grave of Koos Malgas, the only grave with a gravestone. Just amazing, how his people honoured both him and Ms Martins, disregarding their social boundaries and respecting them as humans and honouring them respectfully in death.
Travelling through the Karoo, it became apparent how the towns were identified by its Churches and church towers. It was the way the church towers stood out from the horizon indicating and identifying that you are nearing the next town. The Churches varied in style and its opulence, some Churches were buildings constructed by the locals using the stones in the area, others such as the Graaff-Reinett Church looks like it belongs in Europe.
Nieu Bethesda had a modest and simple church, one of my favourite images taken on our trip and an inspiration to some of my artworks.
As we travelled through the Karoo, and as we headed back through the Free State we would continue see our next destination marked by a church tower. Our last stop was Clarence; from there we got onto the highway and made our way back to Durban. The last church tower I managed to see was in Pietermaritzburg… and then it dawned on me… the towers of The Pavilion. A huge shopping centre signifying that we have entered and reached Durban. The church was replaced by the towers of a shopping centre. Welcome to our new world. Welcome to the new place of worship. It felt void of spirituality. I am not really religious, but I do appreciate the beauty and mysticism of a church and cathedral, seeing the Pavilion saddened me in a way, it reminded me of the reality of our world driven by consumerism. I was sad our trip came to an end, and I immediately longed for the barren and beautiful landscape of the Karoo.
Some of the photographs were taken by Carla Erasmus, have a look at her blog: www.carlaerasmus.blogspot.com
For various sources on Helen Martins, visit: http://www.neurodiversity.com/bio_martins.html
Image of Helen Martins sourced from: http://rivian-shareart.blogspot.com/2010/10/owl-house-helen-martins-extroadinary_09.html