Few people would have earmarked the Northern Cape settlement of Philipstown as a haven for new Karoo artists. But it’s happening and the work is astounding, so hold onto your hats.
Words: Chris Marais and Julienne du Toit
Pictures: Chris Marais; www.karoospace.co.za
Artist Kay Fourie is one of the main reasons the world has started noticing the forgotten little Eastern Karoo village of Philipstown again. Years ago, Kay taught local kids to stick mosaics and whimsical messages on old car doors. Today, those doors line the outside walls of Merino Motors, the business of her husband Andries.
Later, she put up a line of wire-car racer statues that become action-figure silhouettes in back light. They also, quite prophetically, have become the icons of the town. People who normally just drove through would stop and stare. Sometimes, that’s all you have to do to get your spot noticed.
Attached to Merino Motors is Die Bokskryt (the boxing ring), which looks like it had a previous life as a Jewish synagogue.
No one around here will confirm this, however. But there’s no mistaking the configuration: a bottom floor and an upstairs section with an open, central well. People on the first floor can look down and follow proceedings below.
Its most colourful assignation in recent decades was as a boxing ring for farmers, who settled their hard feelings at the beginning of the weekend with a brandy and a few rounds of fisticuffs. When Andries bought the place nearly a decade ago, it was boarded up and full of the kind of stuff that would have the blokes from American Pickers drooling at the mouth: ancient pieces of furniture and the wrecks of many classic cars.
“I salvaged the parts and badges and sold them to collectors and dealers, and the end-profit nearly paid off the whole building,” he says. Fair enough, because if you’d have asked the residents of the Philipstown area back then about the wisdom of Andries Fourie’s new investment, they would simply have smiled and shaken their heads with scepticism.
Now two Joburg fellows, who used to run a pop-up restaurant, have come to town, rented the space from the Fouries and established everyone’s favourite Philipstown restaurant.
Pieter Steyn wanted to escape the Gauteng traffic and live in the country. Darryll Ackermann was all set on sailing the Mediterranean on a yacht, but Peter could not abide a boat. Darryll was also a fan of the Karoo, however. So they were both sold on Philipstown, especially when Kay showed them the Bokskryt. “The locals support us like you won’t believe,” they say.
Right next to the restaurant is the bar. As we enter, my wife Jules has a brief coughing fit. “Is jy siek? (Are you sick?)” comes the high-pitched solicitation from a corner. Meet Kobus, the Rose-breasted Cockatoo. He is named for the famous rugby player Kobus Wiese because he, too, has a crew cut. Kobus lives in a massive bird cage, which comes complete with a kind of hammock, a suspended fold of material. When the blokes in the bar get too raucous and it’s late, Kobus escapes to the quiet and darkness of his hammock.
You trudge up some pretty vertical stairs to get to the Groen Straat Gallery from the downstairs restaurant, but it’s worth the climb. Kay introduces us to Karen Pretorius. The two artists collaborate constantly, curating an ever-changing series of exhibitions up here in a rather wonderfully wide-angle gallery space.
They’ve just taken down an exhibition by Bloemfontein artist Marcia van der Merwe, who has done some vivid renditions of the local rock stars – the draadkarretjie (wire-car) racers. ‘K&K’ are also talking about another exhibition they’re going to call Tin Tin Meets Pierneef, and then there’s the evocative Border Wars exhibition featuring the works of both Karen Pretorius, her husband, Steyn and another artist called Andy Swanepoel.
They’re busy hanging a massive painting by one Ignatius Marx, another well-known national artist now living in Philipstown. Ignatius is all about landscapes. Few people can ‘do clouds’ like this man. Ignatius lives nearby, in a grand old house with impossibly high ceilings that used to belong to the manager of the local Standard Bank. “I drove through Philipstown at sunset one day. I stayed for the light.” Spoken like a true creative.
The artists here hold workshops and, it is said (and not by Kobus, mind) that a couple of Philipstown farmers have shown some interest in attending them. You could call Phillip Fourie (no relation to Kay and Andries) the white-haired man with the black bakkie and the pink plough who lives in the shiny house near the spotted pigs out there, with a great view of the Pramberg in the distance.
Phillip’s wife Hennie runs the Philipstown Coffee Shop. The Fouries live off the grid on a plot on the outskirts of town. I like his home signs: There Is No End To Beingness; Nothing is Finished or Perfect or Forever; Shit Happens.
“Why did you move here?” is your question. He will say: “Well, it was either Philipstown or Fouriesburg.” There might be silence while you look for the punchline. And then the penny drops. Ha.
Phillip acquired three corrugated iron houses in kit form and joined them. Apparently, you can order them from your friendly co-op. He set up two solar pumps for water sourcing and heating, insulated the dwelling well and arranged everything to face Philipstown’s two iconic, breast-shaped hills.
“We sold our TV and kept the radio,” he says. “From the stoep, we greet the morning sun with a cup of coffee and, in the evenings when last light falls, we salute the Pramberg with a glass of red wine.”
We’ve been attending the annual Draadkarretjie Grand Prix in Philipstown for three years, and this time it seems the world and his uncle have joined us on the streets to cheer the kids on – and photograph them.
At the shouted command the assembled racers suddenly sprint forward, weaving through the spectators, charging around a corner and vanishing down one of the dirt roads. Wire cars bounce all over the potholes. A little blonde girl’s steering column bends and then collapses, sending her flying. She ends up sobbing in the dust.
Now where have they gone? Rumours are rife that they’ll return down the main road, so all the camera people rush off and wait. But the ever-present race marshal, Oom Doy Ferreira, tells me they’ll come back down a lower road, so I head in the opposite direction.
He’s right. Right in front is Wesley van Rooy (15), who has won the Draadkarretjie Grand Prix by a mile the last five times. But that’s not the end of the affair. The crush of adults is incredible. They have all come to see the little tots walking on and off the stage, some shy and with eyes down, all holding teddies or dolls. They sashay down a long human corridor right up to the stage and present themselves.
There are calls of encouragement, and many smartphones capture the event. Those kids who have no such technology make do with folded-up, inverted Nik Nak packets, shiny side up, and pretend to be official photographers covering the event.
Wow. Maybe we’ll also move in next door to all those other pioneering artists and draadkarretjie dervishes who have come to love the dim little lights of Philipstown.
- Kay Fourie: 083 277 4142, [email protected]
- Philipstown Tourism: www.philipstown.co.za
PLEASE NOTE: We’ve been made aware that the Bokskryt gallery and restaurant mentioned in this article feature have unfortunately closed down temporarily.