There’s a dynamic spirit of innovation and storytelling in the Karoo village of Nieu-Bethesda, tucked within the Camdeboo mountains.
Words: Lauren McShane
Pictures: Vaughan and Lauren McShane and Supplied
Here in the dusty, unchanged streets of Nieu-Bethesda, tucked within the Camdeboo mountains and surrounded by creaky windmills, we are privy to some of the /Xam people’s (also known as the San) earliest mythologies.
Fabric shamans rise up against power animals such as the eland and kudu, in a hunting match that will see them enter a deep trance. The first hunter-gatherers are stitched together with the burgundy land they’re so deeply connected to, and pleas for rain are made through a dance right here on majestic art quilts that scale towards the ceiling. Burnt rusty flames dart up towards a conjurer and a ferocious cotton lion attacks a Bushman.
At the First People Centre in the Bethesda Arts Centre of this Karoo village, artists have moved past the derogatory nature of the word ‘Bushman’, which was frequently used as a term of abuse during apartheid. They work daily to instil pride in being called descendants of the /Xam Bushmen, the earliest hunter-gathers in Southern Africa.
While theirs is an extinct language, it lives on in 12 000 pages of handwritten testimony from the last /Xam speakers, recorded by German linguist Dr Wilhelm Bleek and his sister-in-law Lucy Lloyd, and here in these tapestries on exhibit.
Artistic director of the First People Centre is Jeni Couzyn, and lead artist Sandra Sweers heads this collective of artists, whose work is inspired by the rich culture and mythology of the /Xam people. Together they portray art beyond cave paintings, and Sandra explains that the project was founded by Jeni Couzyn, to teach locals a variety of empowering skills in order to recover their identity and express themselves in art.
“Since joining this project, I have learnt charcoal sketching, painting, sculpture, textile design, quilting and stained-glass art,” says Sandra. “But even better is that we earn a living, and go out and share these skills with others, including children, through regular art workshops. And we know our tradition will survive.”
Together with artists Rentia Davids and Seraline Tromp, she ducks behind a humming sewing machine, carefully attaching legendary animals and figures to cushion covers. There is no chatter, only the drone of the busy needle, and an intense concentration on their work.
“I love using rhinos in my tapestries, and work from photographs,” says Seraline of her favourite muse. Rentia sits at an adjacent table and explains that her inspiration comes from birds, and each piece usually takes about two days to finish.
Today the project has 20 artists who now have work each day and new skill sets. Each one earns a monthly stipend as well as commissions from any art sold. Beyond the canvas, these same artists tackle community issues such as alcoholism and abuse through the performing arts of dance, drama and clowning in theatres around the country.
Behind another deep-set wooden door, I escape the Karoo’s afternoon sun to find First People Centre artist Riaan Swiers tending to some stained glass. Sitting on the couch is a teenage boy who has come here during his holidays to hone his sketching skills in the workshop. I catch a glimpse of a charcoal sketch of a gorilla resting beside the matching photograph in a wildlife book. “Some of our work has been displayed at Iziko Museum, and in other museums around the country,” Riaan tells me.
The aroma of lunch-time Karoo lamb wafts over from a nearby restaurant and red dust swirls around my feet as we head towards the haven of an artist of old, this time one who filled her yard with cement, glass and wire sculptures, and seemed way ahead of her time and far too progressive for this town in the 1930s.
We step through the gateway into the home of the late Helen Martins, where fractured shards of light filter through the red, yellow, green and brown glass she used to transform her poverty-stricken surroundings. After a short, failed marriage to a man who wouldn’t stay faithful, and caught in a life of loneliness and frequent illness, she obsessively worked to fill her dark living space with bits of sunshine. Aside from her farm-style kitchen filled with rusty tins and streams of daylight, I find dark rooms filled with nude paintings, and crushed glass covering every surface, from vintage suitcases and cabinets to doorways.
Helen’s was a life spent working with endless jars of finely crushed glass that was believed to have caused her blindness. But before tragically taking her own life, she spent years creating a mystical and enchanting world of owls, camels and wise men facing the east, inspired by the bible and the poetry of Omar Khayyam and William Blake. Her fascination with the Orient is etched into the turbans, prayerful hands, and robes of her sculptures, which she constructed with the help of local Koos Malgas, whose daughter now sells replicas of their art outside the Owl House.
Back on the dirt roads of this Karoo town, which is sans ATM or petrol station, we walk past donkey carts pulling visitors in a carriage. The whitewashed steeple of the Dutch Reformed Church reaches skyward and a nearby windmill races along in the wind. Past a field of bright yellow blooms, just across the river, lies the studio of Frans Boekkooi, another famous resident of Nieu Bethesda.
The heavy scent of acrylic resin and plasticine moulds greets us at the top of the stairs to Frans’ studio. Scattered in every nook of the room lie his tools, moulds, inks and bits of wax, clay, steel and wood – all used in his sculptures. A resident of Nieu-Bethesda for about seven years, he says, “I still miss Cape Town, the ocean and the networking opportunities in the city.” In a place where everyone knows all your business, he confesses to sometimes staying on his side of the river and not interacting with the community very much.
Portraits of children and animals are among his most popular commissions. On a cluttered workbench stands a clay sculpture of Athol Fugard, a man who, along with Etienne van Heerden, has greatly inspired Frans’ art. A girl works diligently at her desk and a young boy plays with a plane. “My work always begins with a sketch before I work on the armature of the sculpture, using materials such as wax, plasticine or clay. Next, I use a silicone-rubber mould cast in bronze or acrylic resin, before I begin adding colour with inks.”
Live sittings are way quicker, but Frans tells me that his subjects are seldom still enough for him to capture their profiles. “Photographs prove challenging, too, as I have to translate a 2D image to a 3D one,” he says. “However, a sculpture shouldn’t be too realistic but allow room for the artist’s interpretation.”
Across the road, geese gather to drink and tiny lambs play in the farmyard sand. Wind whips up layers of the hot earth as the tired day begins retreating back on itself. Soon night will fall in this corner of the Camdeboo before a new day begins, and the artists of this little town begin creating once more.
- Bethesda Art Centre: 049 841 1731, www.nieubethesda.org
- The Owl House: 049 841 1642, www.theowlhouse.co.za
- Frans Boekkooi Sculpture Studio: 082 865 2699, www.fransboekkooi.co.za