Project Description

  • The Owlhouse - Nieu Bethesda

Helen Martins’ Owl House, often cited as South Africa’s finest example of outsider art, is an extraordinary, other-worldly home of concrete and ground glass sculptures. Her creativity conjures up an array of emotions: from wonder to excitement, curiosity and sadness.

The late Helen Martins dedicated the latter part of her life to transforming her ordinary Karoo home into a fanfare of colour and light. The result is The Owl House, and it’s impact is such that visitors are variously awed, inspired, fascinated, calmed or perturbed by their visit, but never untouched.

Helen Martins grew up in Nieu Bethesda, leaving for only a few years during her youth. Her immense sensitivity, her unconventional love affairs and the fact that she had at least one abortion left her somewhat at odds with the strict Calvinist village around her. Increasingly, she hid herself away in her home. In the camel yard hangs the sign: “This is my world”.

Over the years, she and various assistants (the most famous being Koos Malgas) worked to create a multi-coloured house and fantasy garden of concrete and ground glass sculptures. Inside the Owl House, walls are encrusted with ground glass, mirrors are placed to catch light at different times of day and lanterns and candles arranged to bounce their light onto the mirrors. In the Camel Yard, scores of statues – many of them wise men and camels – face East, towards a Mecca of sorts.

Shortly before she turned 79, Helen Martins ended her life by drinking caustic soda. The theories about her suicide are diverse; that her eyesight was failing because of damage from ground glass, that she had had an argument, that depression got the better of her.

In truth, the events of her life, the forces that drove her and the reasons for her decision to die are all something of a mystery. Every account offers a different interpretation (one of the most revealing is Sue Imrie Ross’ This is my world and the most famous is Athol Fugard’s The Road to Mecca). What is certain though is that she left behind a startling and powerful vision of her world, a vision that is larger than life.

The Owl House is open from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. during the December School holidays and from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily for the rest of the year. Entry costs R50 per person for adults and kids and R65 for a combo ticket for the Owl House and the Kitching Fossil Centre. Concessions are available.

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