The Owl House – Nieu-Bethesda, South Africa
One of the most fascinating places that I have ever been to visit has most
definitely been The Owl House in Nieu-Bethesda in the
The mesmerizing story of Helen Martins who began, in 1945, to
obsess with cement, glass and wire is revealed in this little museum kept in her honour.
Helen Martins was born on 23rd December in 1897 and inherited the
quaint little house after her parents died.
As you enter the house you can feel the atmosphere of ‘strangeness’, an eerie experience as you view glass crushed on the walls, glass of every conceivable colour and shape in every room, hanging, catching the natural light of the sun.
You can feel the loneliness and persecution of this lady’s ‘stifled’ spirit in her time in the small conservative town, Nieu-Bethesda, where conformity was the order of the day.
There are camels, owls, cats,sphinxes and people, many with bulbous protruding eyes, all made of glass bottles.
Helen’s fascination with the Orient is evident in all the statues pointing and some desperately ‘reaching out’ in one direction, all facing the same way; Eastwards.
Helen drew her inspiration from Christian biblical texts, poetry of Omar Khayyam and works of William Blake. In 1964 she was assisted by Koos Malgas, a Coloured man; this drew considerable suspicion in the apartheid-era of South Africa.
Helen’s eyesight began to fail from excessive exposure to fine crushed glass which led her to commit suicide at the age of 78 on August 8th 1976. The Owl House was declared a provisional national monument in 1991.
South African playwright Athol Fugard drew inspiration from her story in his play The Road to Mecca in 1985, this was later made into a film.
It was an amazing experience where I actually felt her pain and anguish as portrayed in her many statues in the backyard. A remarkable lady!