There is a remarkable display of outsider art on a remote rocky plateau near Loxton in the Northern Cape…
Words: Julienne du Toit
Pictures: Chris Marais and Supplied
Far, far away, on a rocky plateau at the end of a tortuously bad Karoo farm road in the Northern Cape, there is a circle of dancers. From a distance, it seems as if magic or forked lightning has frozen them into positions of rapture, motionless in the deep blue silence of the Great Karoo.
These ten life-size statues, on Erasmuskraal farm outside Loxton, must be one of the Karoo’s more eccentric, intriguing and remote artistic creations. This is true outsider art, with no expectation of appreciation from any form of life aside from a soaring Jackal Buzzard, perhaps, or the odd steenbok.
The only way to access this group of figures, named The Dance by their creator, the late Marcella de Boom (1945-2009), is by asking permission from the farm’s owner, Johan van der Berg, and driving there with a very sturdy vehicle.
The road, not to put too fine a point on it, is formidable. In parts, it is beset by washaways, bedrock and deep ruts that would rip the axle off an unsuspecting sedan. Farmworker and guide Ryno Maans knows it well, though, and can point out the easiest angles across the treacherously high middelmannetjie and the tyre-biter rocks.
It takes at least 90 minutes of slow driving through rocky sheep camps with gisooie (dry ewes) and eierooie (pregnant ewes), to get to the plateau, passing through dozens of gates, confusing crossroads, thousands of fragrant kapok bushes, resin bushes, kareebos and lacy wild asparagus punctuated by the distinctive fan-shaped leaf-crowns of the Bushman poison bulbs.
And then suddenly there they are, the dancers captured in sensual abandon in a circle atop a ridge of solid rock, with only the wind sighing through the veld for music. Pretoria-based artist Marcella de Boom created this intriguing, uncommissioned sculpture in 1999, working day after day in the Karoo heat, on this faraway plateau, with a few helpers. Why here? Why at all?
That isn’t very clear, but her daughter, poet Ilse van Staden explains that her mother loved the Karoo. She sometimes visited friends in nearby Fraserburg, and on this farm she had sensed something – perhaps the presence of the Bushmen. “Maybe because of the view. Maybe because of a feeling,” said Ilse.
There are no rock paintings or rock etchings here to confirm that the San had frequented this area. But there is a dry riverbed only a short walk away, with a precipitous drop that becomes a waterfall after rain. The water pools at the bottom must have been known to the hunter gatherers. The place has an intangible energy that feels joyful and engaging.
The spirit of Nieu-Bethesda’s Owl House is here in more ways than one. Marcella had visited Helen Martins’ cement wonderland of creations in the 1990s with her daughter Ilse. Like Helen Martins before her, Marcella used the prosaic media of cement and steel, to create something quite astounding, art for the sheer wonder of it. She was inspired, she later wrote, by the Bushmen – ‘the First Dancers of the Karoo’ – and by a poem by NP van Wyk Louw.
The last stanza of Van Wyk Louw’s poem Die Swart Luiperd (The Black Leopard) reads: ‘Geen ding is duister, maar hy glans of hou sy skittering ingesluit, en niks is dood, en alles dans en reik na naamlose dinge uit’. Loosely translated, it means ‘No thing is completely dark, but it shines or shimmers from within. And nothing is dead, and everything dances, and reaches out to the unnamed’.
Letters etched in cement spread over the rock credit Matthys Strydom of Strydom Gallery in George as the sponsor of The Dance. Marcella’s brother Jannie also donated some money for her opus. NP van Wyk Louw’s poem, the dedication to the First Dancers, and the names of her helpers are also commemorated, written in cement – John Sinclair, Alkie de Wee, Isak Harris and Gert Devenish.
Previous owner ‘Rooi’ John Sinclair had plans to create a birding trail so that hikers would approach this startling sight at the end of a long day’s walk. But it never came to fruition before his death. The new owners of the farm were unsure what to do with the figures, which were by now crumbling into ruin. Marcella de Boom had died of a heart attack in Pretoria, the year before they bought the property.
But Marcella and The Dance had not been forgotten. A group of the artist’s friends later restored the sculptures. The six friends – Koos and Willemien Olivier from Swartruggens, Dürr and Sigrun Bezuidenhout from Yzerfontein and Armand and Rienie du Plessis from Dinokeng Game Reserve north of Pretoria worked for a week on Marcella’s creations. Their silent witness was a large figure of a baboon that Marcella had left deliberately rough and unpolished, off to the side. (This part of the farm is called Bobbejaankrans.)
The ecstatic figures, their hands raised and their heads thrown back, have been brought back to life. Surrounded by wind-blown veld, The Dance continues, and the Clapper Larks applaud.