We arrived at Nieu Bethesda safe and a lot more alive than the dassie, whose death throes we witnessed, after it with suicidal commitment played chicken with a farm tannie and her 4×4. (Parable for the day – never challenge a farmer’s wife otherwise its the Slaghuis for you)
Nieu Bethesda has wide roads like Graaff-Reinet and a milk shortage like Graaff-Reinet. Panga Management is starting to feel a great deal of concern regards the South African dairy industry, something is not right in the pastures and it’s beginning to show on the peripheries.
Visually saturated, Panga Management feels hollowed out by the never-ending beauty of the Karoo and then Nieu Bethesda comes along. We walk the wide short streets disturbing dust and sussing out the lay of the town, this takes all of 20 minutes; the town is small. Juju and Kiki makes friends with a dog called Bernie who remained their companion for the duration of their stay and a cat called “who the hell knows” but was promptly christened Dusty- Cat, not because he was brown (he was black and white) but because he was dusty.
So what’s new in Nieu Bethesda? nothing much, so why were we there? to get as far away from the City of Cape Town as possible (within road trip time constraints) and on the hunt for small towns you don’t get much smaller than this . Mission achieved! Metaphorically speaking, even if anyone in Nieu Bethesda knew what a Latte was, they certainly would not have had the milk to make it, are you picking up what I’m putting down ; Nieu Bethesda is outside the “system”.
There is a fair amount written about outsider artists and Helen Martin the creator of “The Owl house” pretty much fits the bill. Summing up Miss Helen for you; unwilling or unable to conform completely to the patriarchal and narrow roles allocated to people of her time she became an outcast who with a manic-depressive lead poisoned mania, created a new world in her garden and home. You can Google her if you want the historical facts.
Her garden is fuller than a famine victim at a banquet, not just with owls as the name would have you belive, but with many creatures. You cannot take a step back to compose a photo without fearing that you will crash into the manifested clutter of her mind. Saying that, the garden world seems devoid of her presence. Inside the house every object practical or otherwise has obsessively found a place in her installation and Panga Management feels like an intruder.
Helen’s pain is ground glass on the walls; her night-gown is being violated with rot as it hangs on a hook in her room. That’s not to say that Panga Management would support the space becoming a sophisticated house museum with LCD screens and interactive owl animations, but we paid to come in and it feels like a peep show. Lets be honest that’s what it is for most viewers; a peep show, people come to view “the other” the outsider in all their beauty and vulnerability.
Back in the day, the people of Nieu Bethesda made this women’s life, let call it “uncomfortable” because she did not conform. Currently the whole town gets by on the legacy of her mania. Despite this the old disdain and her pain still reverberates through the house. Don’t get Panga Management wrong, the people who currently reside in Nieu Bethesda are fab, kind , kooky characters living ordinary lives extraordinary ways. You must check out Bruno’s cellar if you are ever passing through, I will not ruin the surprise by saying any more!
Nieu Bethesda is far away from the Meta narrative of contemporary society and it’s fair to state that many people go there to escape the expectations of contemporary life, ironically with Helen it was the opposite, she felt obligeded to be there and then trapped there, in the end though Nieu Bethesda and the world she created was as much a sanctuary as a jail.
Go to Nieu Bethesda, give Bernie a hug and Dusty-cat a cuddle. For extra special attention from Dusty- cat make sure you have a zebra print blanket that smells like smoked salami ( long story) . Enjoy the silence and see what the other can teach you about yourself.