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The Karoo art of Nieu-Bethesda

The Karoo art of Nieu-Bethesda
A bucket-list jaunt through the Owl House and Camel Yard. Image: Chris Marais & Julienne du Toit

The little village of Nieu-Bethesda, tucked into a fold of the Sneeuberg Mountains in the Eastern Cape Karoo, is one of the creative touchstones of South Africa.

Musicians arrive in battered old split-window Kombis, set up a stage at a local bar, plug in and play for the hat and the love; writers hire cottages for the winter and settle in behind log fires, laptops and good coffee to finish overdue book projects. Some never leave.

Painters, potters and sculptors also move here for the long haul, often staying on for decades beyond their initial plans. For inspiration, they simply step out of their front doors, inhale the fresh Karoo air and walk the dusty streets under the kindly gaze of the ever-present Compassberg peak, in the general direction of Boetie’s Pub for a sundowner.

World-class wildlife artist David Langmead, who’s done some of his best work in Nieu-Bethesda, notes that “you feel the ebb and the flow of the seasons in a small Karoo town like this. In winter, you become winter. When it is bleak, you become bleak. And then, in the springtime, you blossom.” And when spring arrives, the settlement sloughs off its dry winter skin and looks to the skies in hope of something wet and wonderful. 

December is just around the corner, and it’s time to spruce up for the rest of the world when it comes streaming in over the Sneeuberg ranges. 

Winter sleet in the valley.

Winter sleet in the valley. Image: Chris Marais & Julienne du Toit

Summertime in the village, and the cyclists are out.

Summertime in the village, and the cyclists are out. Image: Chris Marais & Julienne du Toit

Musicians love to play Nieu-Bethesda: Vusi Mahlasela entertains the crowd in the main street.

Musicians love to play Nieu-Bethesda: Vusi Mahlasela entertains the crowd in the main street. Image: Chris Marais & Julienne du Toit

David and Bronwen Langmead used to love their daily Nieu-Bethesda coffee rituals.

David and Bronwen Langmead used to love their daily Nieu-Bethesda coffee rituals. Image: Chris Marais & Julienne du Toit

Victoria Nance, her great little bookshop and her faithful pack of dogs.

Victoria Nance, her great little bookshop and her faithful pack of dogs. Image: Chris Marais & Julienne du Toit

Everything feeds off everything

How can Nieu-Bethesda inspire people so much? Was it the legacy of Helen Martins and her Owl House, the words of playwright Athol Fugard that followed, or the ancient Bushmen who were the first artists in these snowy mountains?

Perhaps everything feeds off everything. 

Martins was inspired by the Bible, poet William Blake, The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyám, brown beer bottles and Sunbeam Wondershine tin lids. She created figures out of glass and cement, collaborating with local crafter Koos Malgas to do so. Out of this, a folk art industry emerged. 

As you stroll past the crafter’s stalls outside the Owl House, you can choose from cement mermaids, owls and tortoises, even a rabbit with eyes that glow in the dark when you put a lit candle inside it. 

Athol Fugard bought a Karoo cottage in Nieu-Bethesda, heard about the story of Helen Martins, and wrote a landmark play called The Road to Mecca based on elements of it. The Fugard Arts Festival sprung up for a few years because of this.

The Outsider Spirit

At the Bethesda Art Centre’s Bushman Heritage Museum, we are guided around by a friendly Rasta man called Naasley Eugene Swiers. 

Ness, as he is known around here, is one of the collaborating artists. While showing us a series of incredible narrative tapestries on the walls of the museum, he tells a story of how the Rainbull married a porcupine and created a meerkat as a son, how he threw a shoe into a pond and it became a tiny animal that became an eland that he fed with honey.

“The meerkat and its brothers eventually found and ate the Great Eland, which is how this little animal got its fighting spirit.”

It’s just a tiny snippet of Bushman legend, but it convinces us to purchase Jeni Couzyn’s Creation of the World in /Xam Mythology, which can now join our coveted copy of Specimens of Bushman Folklore by Wilhelm Bleek and Lucy Lloyd.

Craft vendors setting up for a day of sales outside the Owl House.

Craft vendors setting up for a day of sales outside the Owl House. Image: Chris Marais & Julienne du Toit

Naasley Swiers, our guide through the Bethesda Art Centre’s Bushman Heritage Museum.

Naasley Swiers, our guide through the Bethesda Art Centre’s Bushman Heritage Museum. Image: Chris Marais & Julienne du Toit

Figures in the veld

The late sculptor Marcella de Boom was somewhat inspired by Martins’s Outsider Art statues and created a tableau of 10 dancing cement statues called The Dance, in the veld on a farm near Loxton in the Northern Cape. Side-car motorbike maven Ryno Greeff heard about it, chatted to local farmer Peet van Heerden – now The Stone Folk of Ongeluksloot, a collection of wire-and-rock mountain figures, have become another reason to stick around and spend more time in the Sneeuberg.

Pumpkins and bell-towers

Artist Albert Redelinghuys swapped Gauteng for Nieu-Bethesda in 2004. From then onwards, he has had a special relationship with the local NG church. The dominie at the time entrusted him with a giant key and pressed him into service as the clock-winder. It takes 56 vigorous turns to keep the clock going for six and a half days. “This is a wonderful space to enter. I often come here and spend hours, just listening to the ticking of the clock, the bell chiming the hour, looking at the light changing through the windows.”

Redelinghuys’s work has been exhibited in top galleries like Everard Read and Imibala at Graaff-Reinet’s Drostdy Hotel, but it seemed even more natural to him to do an exhibition of his paintings inside the church clock tower in 2021, to the delight of the townspeople. One of them still lurks there, accessible only via a steep staircase – a stunning diptych of the Karoo from the air.

We first encountered Redelinghuys in 2015, when we were roped in as fellow judges at the first Pump Palooza Pumpkin Festival over the Easter weekend. He had donated one of his paintings for a fundraising auction – an enormous pumpkin hovering over the town like an edible Starship from a galaxy far, far away. Categories included Most Beautiful, Weirdest, Best Dressed, Best Carved and Sexiest. There was an easy choice for the latter: a Hubbard Squash with a suggestive shape emphasised by a thong. But Redelinghuys, the dissenting judge, urged us not to go for the obvious. He pointed out the voluptuous curves of the other pumpkins, encouraging his fellow judges to cup and fondle them.

Of late he has turned his attention to the micro landscapes of the Karoo, transformed by the breaking of the drought. “The little rain hollows, filled by streams. The cloudy green of the water that hides who knows what in its unseen depths? Maybe a mermaid, or the spirit of a mermaid? A mystery.” He is entranced by the daily lightshow from his studio at the end of each day, the view of the church tower and the wind that sometimes carries the chimes across the river.

Ryno and Alpha Greeff, and the sign to the Stone Folk of Ongeluksloot.

Ryno and Alpha Greeff, and the sign to the Stone Folk of Ongeluksloot. Image: Chris Marais & Julienne du Toit

Local artist Albert Redelinghuys taking visitor Sue Charles through his studio.

Local artist Albert Redelinghuys taking visitor Sue Charles through his studio. Image: Chris Marais & Julienne du Toit

Veteran Nieu-Bethesda sculptor Frans Boekkooi adding the final touches to a piece.

Veteran Nieu-Bethesda sculptor Frans Boekkooi adding the final touches to a piece. Image: Chris Marais & Julienne du Toit

The Whisper Wood of Nieu-Bethesda, with its gurgling and precious spring-fed water furrow.

The Whisper Wood of Nieu-Bethesda, with its gurgling and precious spring-fed water furrow. Image: Chris Marais & Julienne du Toit

Frans and Athol

We cross the Gats River to visit sculptor Frans Boekkooi, whose work first caught our fancy more than a decade ago when he made the incredible Visman Steier (literally Fisherman Staggers, but actually a character out of an Etienne van Heerden novel) figure and a masterful bust of Mr Karoo himself, Fugard, complete with beanie and beard.

Boekkooi now has his own gallery, where his figures (we see a girl sunbathing, a donkey cart carrying away computer trash, an alert meerkat and yes, there’s Mr Fugard) are on display. We catch this fine artist in his workshop, contemplating the finishing touches to a champion Merino he’s just immortalised in a small statuette.

Rewind to the turn of the century, when Port Elizabeth-based Boekkooi first came to Nieu-Bethesda on a break. “It was like coming home. Nieu-Bethesda is a place that feels familiar, even though you may not have been here before.” DM/ ML

'Karoo Roads III' book cover. Image: Supplied

‘Karoo Roads III’ book cover. Image: Supplied

This is an extract from Karoo Roads III – The Adventure Continues, by Chris Marais and Julienne du Toit. For author-signed, first-edition copies of Karoo Roads III or the complete collection of Karoo Roads books, email Julienne du Toit at [email protected] 

In case you missed it, also read Long ago in Lekkersing – a Richtersveld journey

Long ago in Lekkersing – a Richtersveld journey


Visit Daily Maverick’s home page for more news, analysis and investigations


 

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  • Sydney Kaye says:

    You can try to glamourise this place but it’s actually just a tatty village with tatty so called art in a grubby cottage. It’s one of thoss places you go to because of articles like this and say ” Is this it”. Or “what a waste of time”.

    • James Moffatt says:

      Hi Sydney
      I’m assuming you came to this scathing judgement after a mere 1 or 2 nights in the village. If by tatty you mean dusty, un-tarred roads with no street lights, then I’m afraid you’re not a deep Karoo person. I get that. Not everyone is. But you’re not correct about the art. Residents include one of the finest artists in the country (Albert Redilinghuys), who has been exhibited and sold worldwide by none other than Everard Read and proudly touted by RMB, as well as globally respected ceramicists Charmaine & Martin Haines, artist Joanne Reen and artist/sculpturist Gregg Price, to name but a few. The properties date back to the mid 1800’s – and some provide such exquisitely curated accommodation that they have been listed with Perfect Hideaways. There is something for everybody in Nieu-Bethesda. If the art and property was not to your liking, you could have explored the most wonderful hiking trails, mountain bike riding, donkey-cart booze cruizes and the most fascinating history of million-year old fossils.
      It is a village like no other in South Africa.
      But it is a very long trip to get there. Perhaps that is why you gave such a grumpy review.

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