The Owl House is a museum in Nieu-Bethesda, Eastern Cape, South Africa. The owner, Helen Martins (1897 -1976), turned her house and the area around it into a visionary environment, elaborately decorated with ground glass and containing more than 300 statues including owls, camels, pyramids, peacocks, and people. She inherited the house from her parents and began its transformation after they died. Helen Martins’ Owl House, often cited as South Africa’s finest example of outsider art, is an extraordinary, other-worldly home of concrete and ground glass sculptures.
She is believed to have begun within the house, employing locals Jonas Adams and Piet van der Merwe to make structural alterations, and covering interior surfaces with ground glass. Windows, mirrors and lights further enhanced the illumination inside. Martins also used cement and wire, decorating the interior of her home and later building sculptures in her garden. In 1964, she was joined in her work by Koos Malgas, who helped her build the sculptures in the outside area called the Camel Yard. Theirs was an intensely collaborative process, meeting daily to envisioning and create new works.Martins was inspired by Christian biblical texts, the poetry of Omar Khayyam, and various works by William Blake. The Camel Yard contains more than 300 sculptures, many of owls, camels, and people. Most are oriented toward the east as a tribute to Martins’ fascination with Mecca and the Orient. A sign in the yard says “This is My World.”There are suggestions that their neighbours may have been suspicious of the relationship between Malgas, a coloured man, and Martins, a white woman. There are also suggestions that Martins got along better with her coloured neighbours (to whom she reportedly sold illegally brewed alcohol) than with members of the austere Dutch Reform church. Nonetheless, although she was somewhat reclusive (and became increasingly so as she grew older), Helen Martins invited her neighbours to view her house of light at Christmas. There are also indications that her neighbours helped to care for Helen’s father in his last years, and that they gave her food when she did not care for herself. Relationships between her and the community she lived in were clearly complicated and often difficult.
As per her wishes, the Owl House has been kept intact as a museum. In 1991, the Friends of The Owl House arranged for Koos Malgas to return to Nieu-Bethesda to care for the site. The Owl House Foundation, which was formed in 1996, now manages the site. The house was declared a provisional national monument in 1989 and was opened as a museum in 1992.
The Owl House and Camel Yard is currently the property of the Dr Beyers Naudé Local Municipality and is “rented” by the Owl House Foundation, a non-profit organisation that looks after Helen’s home and legacy. They are in charge of the day to day running of the house as well as the upkeep and restoration of the house and statues that deteriorate with age.