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LOCAL TIME: 06:03 pm | Sunday, 25 February
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The Owl House, Nieu-Bethesda, Eastern Cape

Visits to the Owl House in Nieu-Bethesda are invariably described as ’emotional journeys’ from amazed and inspired, to saddened and perturbed.

Described as South Africa’s greatest example of ‘outsider art’ and acknowledged in photographic exhibitions by the Tate Gallery in London, the house is the former home of Helen Martins, a beautiful woman who was born in Nieu-Bethesda in the late 1890’s.

In her youth, Helen left what was then a tiny farming community to get married in Graaff-Reinet, but she returned after the failure of her marriage and became trapped for many years caring for her ailing and aged parents. By the time they had both passed on, Helen was in her late forties and prospects for a new life had passed her by.

The story goes that rather than succumb to depression and loneliness, Helen began transforming her world with art and sculpture in concrete and ground glass. She started with the inside of the house, and went on to the outside and the courtyard only after the inside was full.

The inside is dominated by ‘sun faces’ and the big-eyed owls that give the house its name, but by the time Helen got outside, her artistic expression had become more complex and her courtyard is filled with camel and ‘pilgrim’ or ‘wise-men’ type sculptures that all face or reach east – perhaps toward a personal Mecca or the promise of the evening star. Helen was by this stage an outcast in a community of Calvinists, though no-one really knows why, or what she was thinking as she sculpted – for twelve long years. The only clues to her thoughts and feelings are the sculptures and artworks themselves, but these clues are powerful enough have inspired other works of art – including ‘The Road to Mecca’ by famous South African playwright and ex-resident of Nieu-Bethesda, Athol Furgard.

The Owl House may (or not) be the result of 12 years of loneliness, but it is most certainly an expression of transcendence; though Helen Martins eventually committed suicide, she left behind a legacy that breathed new life into what was a forgotten and dying farming village and turned it into one of South Africa’s most visited and inspiring tourist attractions with over 13000 annual visitors, and counting.

More info on the town of Graaff Reinet More info on the Karoo Heartland area

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