Tuesday, May 23, 2023

Egypt and the Owl House – What is the Connection?

 Ever since I was young, I’ve had a deep, abiding fascination with the Owl House, the creation of Outsider Artist Helen Martins who lived in the tiny Karoo town of Nieu Bethesda in South Africa until she tragically ended her own life in 1976. If you’ve never heard the term “Outsider Art” before, in a nutshell, according to the Tate Gallery: “Outsider art is used to describe art that has a naïve quality, often produced by people who have not trained as artists or worked within the conventions of traditional art production”. (1)

This places Helen’s work under the umbrella shared by the likes of the Palais Idéal by Ferdinand Cheval (Hauterives, France, 1836-1924), Nek Chand Saini’s Rock Garden (Chandigarh, India, 1924-2015), and Veijo Rönkkönen Sculpture Garden by Veijo Rönkkönen (Parikkala, Finland, 1944-2010), among many others – these are all well worth a Google if you wish for a wonderful way to explore paths that are quite extraordinary. Outsider Art can therefore be considered a lively global phenomenon that transcends cultures and often crops up in unexpected locations. In addition to regular art materials, it can incorporate found materials in unconventional ways. Outsider Art never fails to elicit strong responses from people who encounter it for the first time. Like it or hate it, there’s no denying that in all its diverse forms, Outsider Art is certainly memorable.

Helen Martins’ Owl House is unforgettable.

From the outside, her home appears as a typical, unassuming Karoo dwelling, but a second glance will draw your gaze to the cement owl sculptures on the stoep enclosed in a wire mesh ‘cage’. If you then peek over the stone wall, you’ll catch your first glimpse of the fantastic Camel Yard – the property’s entire garden has been transformed with hundreds of cement-and-glass statues of camels, pilgrims, mermaids, bottle-skirted hostesses, and other, assorted figures that feed into the rich imagination of their creator.

The interior of the home has also been transformed – its walls painted bright colours and encrusted with crushed glass. Strategically placed mirrors, cut into suns and moons, and other shapes, reflect light, and while Helen was still alive, she would light a multitude of candles and lamps after sunset. If you consider that Nieu Bethesda was only connected to the national electricity grid in the early 1990s, you’ll understand exactly how dark the interior of a home could be back then. And, for those of us currently dealing with load shedding, who have not had the wherewithal to go solar or purchase an inverter, you’ll have an all-too-intimate understanding of exactly how suffocating and tangible the darkness becomes once the sun sets.

But what, I’m sure you’re asking now, does any of this have to do with Egypt?

Some of the themes prevalent in Helen’s work resulted in a synthesis of her own personal cosmology involving light and darkness, with strong solar and lunar themes, but also drew upon Western, Near Eastern, and biblical themes, blending them all in an unrestrained expression of creativity made concrete with cement, wire, glass, and found objects.

And, once you wander past the throngs of pilgrims, camels, bottle-skirted hostesses, owls, and mermaids, you will find a spot of ‘Egypt’ in the Camel Yard, complete with sphinxes and 15 pyramids constructed out of cement over wire armatures. Now Helen herself never visited Egypt, so most of her image sources would have included the humble Lion matchbox with its iconic red lion and other found items, such as postcards. 

Art historian Susan Imrie Ross further elucidates:

In Helen’s house is a well-worn, beautifully tooled leather writing case containing old family photographs and letters. Among the many Egyptians scenes depicted on it are lions, ibises, camels, the sun, Egyptian gods, and birds which appear to have the body of an owl and the face of a human. It is interesting to see the variety of objects on the writing case which could have inspired her, but which she did not choose to use. Subjects such as bulls, the Egyptian half-man half-animal gods, boats to the underworld, chariots, and bowmen obviously did not strike chords with her. (2)

Of course, those who know Egypt’s monuments well, need not have it explained that a sphinx is traditionally depicted as a lion with a human head. (If you’re a mythology buff, you’ll know that variations do exist in Egypt and other cultures.) The sphinx itself, if you run with the ancient Egyptian iteration of this mythological beastie, would be associated with the lion – a solar symbol. We can debate that it possibly further ties in with the lion as it appears in Helen’s cosmology, where it is associated with her father, with whom she had a troubled relationship. To further support this theory, another lion encountered in the Camel Yard has motorcar headlights for eyes (perhaps suggestive of its ability to see in the dark). It is located near the outside room where Helen’s father was banished in his later years. The room was painted black and named ‘The Lion’s Den’.

As for the pyramids, they add to the monumental nature of the Camel Yard in general. Of course, we can only surmise what Helen truly intended them to represent – as symbols, they are powerful reminders of the belief in transcending death, of being able to attain a good afterlife, if one takes into consideration the intentions of the original tomb builders of ancient Egypt.

Perhaps, in a way, it can be conjectured that these creations were Helen’s own attempt at having her name spoken long after her passing, so that in a way, too, she might attain a sort of immortality.

Even if in life, she was somewhat of a social pariah – through her own actions and/or through the regard of her fellow villagers – her creation has in recent years provided a vital lifeline of tourism for this sleepy little Eastern Cape village that it might ordinarily not have experienced. Every year, thousands of tourists take that turnoff from the N9 to visit Helen Martins’ legacy. Whether they stay for a few hours, have a meal, and buy a few curios or linger for days to soak in the sedate ambience, Nieu Betheda arguably casts a magnificent spell on visitors.

If you do find your route winding along near Graaff-Reinet, do consider making a detour to Nieu Bethesda and reckon on spending at least half a day, if not more. It’s also a great place to overnight if you’re breaking up your road trip. Not only will you encounter a community filled with warmth and creativity, but you will have a chance to experience the magical legacy of Helen Martins that will no doubt be spoken of for many more years.


1. “Tate.” Art Term: Outside Art. www.tate.org.uk/art/art-terms/o/outsider-art. Website accessed 18 Jan. 2023

2. Imrie Ross. (1997). This is my world: The life of Helen Martins, Creator of the Owl House (1st ed.). Oxford University Press Southern Africa.

Wednesday, May 17, 2023

Tremendous Trifles by GK Chesterton

I'm not sure who suggested I read Tremendous Trifles by GK Chesterton, but for some reason I'm pretty sure it was Neil Gaiman in one of the videos of his that I watched. This little volume is a collection of short essays, each of which can be devoured in mere minutes – which makes them perfect for someone like me who often doesn't have the energy for longer works on the best of days. 

I'd describe his writing as whimsical, filled with wonder, and often a sly jab of humour. You never know what you're going to get one moment to the next as Chesterton ponders nature, the human condition, and the world around him. He strikes me as the type of person you'd love to have at your dinner table, because he'd be able to entertain you for hours on all manner of subjects. And he'd also succeed in making you look at everything with a different lens from the one you're accustomed to – I can appreciate that!

His essays are warm and filled with uncommon wisdom – I'll definitely see if I can pick up a physical copy of one of his books so that I can pop it into my permanent library. This is definitely the sort of writer who would appeal to those of us prone to indulge in bouts of hermeneutics. Chesterton was rather prolific, so he definitely bears a closer look. This little volume was an absolute little treasure – highly recommended. 

Sunday, May 14, 2023

Die Lang Papawer deur Kristel Loots

Ek is honderd persent seker hierdie boek is per ongeluk na my toe gestuur, want dit is definitief nie een wat ek ooit sou kies om te lees nie. Die ding is, ek het dit maar deurgedruk want ek het skuldig voel omdat dit tussen al my ander resensie boeke aangekom het. Dus gaan ek probeer om 'n gebalanseerde resensie te skrywe. Die Lang Papawer deur Kristel Loots stel ons bekend aan Libbi de Lange. Om dit diplomaties te verskaf – sy is glad nie kort nie, wat haar 'n bietjie van 'n spektakel maak as sy langs meeste mans staan. Sy is anders, en hierdie andersheid is die oorsprong van haar diep onrustigheid en hoe sy sukkel om haar voete te vind. 

Op universiteit ontmoet sy haar bosom-vriendin Flooze, wie so selfgesentreerd is, dat ek die hele tyd net vir Libbi uitskel dat hierdie vroumens nie goed vir haar is nie. En dat Flooze haar net gebruik. Maar Libbi moet maar self leer, en dit gaan nie mooi wees nie. Libbi se kop draai net om mans, en sy kry vir haar 'n man, maar ek voel dat dit meer die simbool van 'n man is wat vir haar belangrik is, en nie dat die man haar vriend is nie. Die hele huwelik, as jy vir my vra, is 'n ramp. Ek was sommer vies vir jaar die hele tyd.

Die roman speel af oor 'n hele leeftyd, omtrent – so ek het gevoel asof daar nie vir my genoeg storie was nie – meer dat Libbi van een ramp na die ander slinger. En die ander probleem vir my was dat al is daar 'n idee van iets wat kan ontwikkel, is die ontwikkeling daarvan te oppervlakkig, en die karakter waarom die ontwikkeling wentel nie sterk genoeg is nie.

Vir my was dit heel en al 'n ongemaklikke boek om te lees, want ek het gevoel asof Libbi nooit eintlik selfbewus word nie, en soos 'n treinramp kon ek ook nie wegkyk nie. Heelwaarskynklik is ek nie die regte leser vir hierdie roman nie maar miskien sal iemand anders die absurde kinkels geniet.

Tuesday, May 9, 2023

Allan Quatermain by H Rider Haggard

I'll be honest, I wasn't quite sure how to approach this review. But to give a little bit of back story, I picked up my copy of Allan Quatermain by H Rider Haggard out of a bargain bin of books that were about to be thrown away. It was a very pretty copy with a red, cloth-bound cover finished with gilt embossed lettering. Printed in 1894 – so it's a bit of a collector’s item. The only problem is that it's somewhat water damaged, but oh what beautiful paper, typography, and illustrations – if you're a bibliophile you'll no doubt agree with me.

I've always wanted to read Haggard’s stories, but I hadn't had the opportunity, so I thought, what the heck. I saw a film adaption of the books many years ago (the 1980s, okay? I'm that old) and felt it was a bit of a cheap Indiana Jones knockoff, but it's always fun to go to the source material, so here we are.

Oh boy, was I in for a ride. (I'm in a punny mood, so bite me.) I always knew that the author was problematic – I just didn't fully realise how problematic. As one of my fellow authors said, Haggard’s writing hasn’t, ahem, aged well – and that's putting it mildly. 

We join Mr Quatermain and his two mates when they embark on their last hurrah in deepest darkest Africa – with emphasis on dark – in a gloriously jingoistic exploration of parts unknown, chock full of half-naked savages thirsting for the blood of white Englishmen. After a stop at the last homely house – oopsie, sorry, this is not Middle-Earth – Quatermain and co. hang out for a bit with some missionary dude before they hie off into terra incognito. Why? Because, wonders upon wonders, they’ve heard that there is this mysterious ‘civilised’ white tribe out there. Which, after many trials and tribulations, they reach their destination. And oh, yes, there is indeed this white tribe of heathens. But their arrival causes unintended political upheaval which they then solve (white saviour much?) so there's romance and plenty of bloodshed and intrigue… And glorification of ye old British Empire, old chap.

Look, Haggard’s writing delivers quite a cracking adventure, but oh my dog, the casual racism, the jingoism, the chauvinism… If you can look past that, you may enjoy this novel. In my estimation, this book is a curious cultural artefact of a bygone era, espousing largely irrelevant, outdated, and frankly offensive mores. This is a prime example of a time capsule in a tradition of literary exoticism.

I still think Indiana Jones is better. This is a hill I will die on.