South Africa Journal: The Outsider Artist

Her arms reach out as if to touch the sky, imploring the heavens to answer, why? She lived in the sleepy, isolated hamlet of Nieu Bethesda nestled in a valley along the great expanse of land they call the Karoo, but mostly she lived in her imagination. Today her tiny house, overflowing with magical glass art and fanciful stone sculptures at the end of a dirt road, is the main reason for the influx of tourists filling the farmhouse B&B’s and delis featuring 5 brands of local ale, but in her lifetime she was shunned as an outsider.

Helen Martins was a white Afrikaans recluse who refused to come to church with the rest of the townsfolk and pray to the Christian God. Instead she created her own universe behind the walls of her garden, creating gods of her own making— outlandish sculpted camels, Buddhas, Arabian princes, and infinite owls. Her story is immortalized in fellow Nieu Bethesda resident Athol Fugard’s play, “The Road to Mecca,” and though we read it aloud on the 6 hour drive from Pretoria, I was not prepared for the creative power of her artistic world that conjures up Picasso meeting Maurice Sendak in a Gaudi park.

After buying several cement owls from dark-skinned roadside hawkers with no forethought of suitcase weight limits, I wandered the still segregated town and thought about all the outsiders in this troubled country– the whites in their big, comfortable houses, the people of color who clean and care for them, scraping by on the other side of town. I stopped in the “sweetest post office in town” where a young blond mother sells stamps and homemade bakery goods while keeping watch on her toddler daughter who was clearly the product of a mixed marriage. The little girl played with her toy giraffe and gazed at me with big black eyes and I wondered if I was staring back at the future of a more inclusive South Africa.

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