The Owl House

Often mentioned in the same breath as Nieu Bethesda, the Owl House is one of the primary reasons why visitors stray off the N9 National Road past the Karoo town of Graaff-Reinet. At a glance, the shuttered home might appear like many others in the region, but then you notice the arch leading into the Camel Yard, and the many cement owls with glass bottle eyes that hold vigil on the boundary.

Weird to some, wonderful to others, the Owl House is a work of outsider art created by Helen Martins between 1945 and 1976. Driven to despair by the dullness of her daily life, she took steps to transform her world with light, colour and texture.

Miss Helen, as she was known by many, was a retiring figure in the village, who employed local labourers, most notably Koos Malgas, to help her construct her Camel Yard which she filled with its many sculptures of bottle-skirted hostesses, mermaids, camels and pilgrims, all journeying to a mystical east.

Miss Helen’s imagination transformed humble materials such as cement, glass, mirrors and wire into a secret, magical world that she shared with few, drawing upon Bible stories, the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, the Orient, and everyday objects – all of which blended to create a personal cosmology.

Her Owl House touched the lives of many while she was alive, even inspiring the playwright Athol Fugard to pen the much-loved play, The Road to Mecca, which was later made into a film.