Saturday, February 3, 2018

A Visit to South Africa's Owl House

Karoo houses do not, in general, admit a lot of light. They are built to be cool in summer and warm in winter, with deep verandas and strategically placed windows. The floors often feel cold underfoot, and at night the darkness is total. Martins spent fourteen years in a house like that, with the sun setting in front of her every day. To light all the rooms properly would have required hundreds of candles and paraffin lamps. In any case, she had something more ambitious in mind. She was not rich, but she was still a white woman in apartheid-era South Africa, which meant that she could depend on the ready availability of black labor. With the paid help of a succession of workers from the neighboring sheep farms, she started removing sections of the walls in her house and replacing them with panes of colored cathedral glass. Martins seems to have needed light like she needed air, and, with a great deal of effort by her and her collaborators, she got it. The word “effort” is important here: Martins never referred to herself as an artist, or to her house as art. She had no formal training, and neither did any of the men who assisted her. She called what they did work, and they did it for forty years. Full New Yorker Story here.