Desecration or restoration?

2011-10-01 00:00

“THE Owl House and the Camel Yard are losing their spirit and mystery.”

These were the words used by world-famous playwright Athol Fugard to describe his last visit to the Owl House in Nieu-Bethesda.

The outsider-artist Helen Martins’s enclave of mirrors, light and concrete sculptures next to the Gats River gained international renown thanks to Fugard’s play The Road to Mecca, which was also filmed.

At the Owl House “Miss Helen”, with her helpers and particularly her soul mate, Koos Malgas, established the so-called Camel Yard, in which camels, wise men and owls, among other things, are on a journey to the “east” — her east, that is, on the southern boundary fence.

However, a minor storm has erupted in connection with Martins’s Mecca. A number of the sculptures were recently restored by the Owl House Foundation, but some people are whispering that the place now resembles a “circus” or a “funfair”.

While the concrete and glass sculptures have been largely uncoloured since Martins’s suicide in 1976, some of them have now been painted shocking bright colours like red, yellow and purple, while others have been somewhat sloppily restored with new concrete.

In a letter to the Owl House Foundation on May 17 Fugard wrote: “It is with a sad heart that I have to report on my dismay during my visit to the Owl House today.

“I believe someone has already used the word ‘desecration’ to describe the changes made to Helen Martins’s extraordinary achievement. My own experience is that the Owl House and the Camel Yard are losing their former spirit and mystery.”

Reinet le Roux, organiser of the recently held Fugard Festival, said it is her desire to see a trained art restorer undertake a scientific investigation into how the long-term preservation of the sculptures can be ensured.

Another resident, Idil Sheard, who has translated Fugard’s work into Afrikaans and owns the Village Inn, says many visitors are unhappy about the bright colours.

“I know the sculptures did have colour while Miss Helen was still alive, but they could have been lime with colouring, something that fades very quickly. You wouldn’t restore a Picasso or a Mona Lisa with paint that exists today. You would try and get the original kind.”

Huldah van Wyk, vice-chair of the Owl House Foundation, who was in charge of the restoration, is not particularly perturbed about the criticism.

“The sculptures keep cracking and pieces break off, especially in the cold winter months. A few months ago the sculptures looked a lot worse. They were restored, but in a sensitive way. It will always be an ongoing process to try and save them.”

She said she painted the sculptures herself. “As you can see, on the archive photos they actually were those colours, but the red, for example, would have faded to a light terracotta. We just brought the colours back to what they used to be.”

She said she used ordinary water-based paint — not modern enamel paint as alleged by some of the people in the town.

“Helen was very fond of bright colours. She would not have painted them pastel colours,” she says.

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