Photo Essay

Nieu Bethesda

This Is My World

Traveling through the Great Karoo in South Africa you come upon the village of Nieu Bethesda which is the home of the Owl House, created by the reclusive Helen Martins and her laborer, Koos Malgas in the 1940s and is now regarded as a masterpiece of visionary art.

The Owl House was her attempt to bring light, life and colour into her lonely grey world.

The story goes that Martins lay ill in bed one night, the moon shining through the window, dwelling on how grey her life had become. There and then she decided to change her world.

From the mundane articles around her, Martins created sun-faces, owls and other images. These were set against a luminous backdrop of walls and ceilings coated with elaborate patterns of crushed glass embedded in bands of brightly coloured paint.

It was only when the interior of the house was virtually completed that Martins applied her imagination to the world beyond her door. She was particularly inspired by biblical texts, the poetry of Omar Khayyam, and the works of William Blake.

Over about 12 years Martins and Malgas created from her imaginings the hundreds of sculptures and relief figures that crowd the Camel Yard and cover the walls of the house. Owls and camels - her favorite animals - predominate, but all kinds of real and fantastical beings are to be found. A procession of shepherds and wise men lead a vast, almost life-size camel train toward the east, integrating Christianity with Martin's fascination for the Orient.

As time, arthritis, and her arduous work took its toll she became shy of her appearance and took great pains to avoid seeing people in the street. Increasingly, she hid herself away in her home. In the camel yard hangs the sign written in wire: "This is my world".

To pursue her vision, Martins endured great physical and emotional hardship - until her eyesight began to fail. In 1976, at the age of 78 and considering her work "almost concluded" - she took her own life by swallowing caustic soda. It was her wish that her creation be preserved as a museum.

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