Samantha McCulloch: The Owl House  

20 minute presentation for AEROPONIC ACTS  - growing roots in air, DAI's 3 day marathon of lecture-perfomance acts, May 2019.

Between 1945 and 1976 in South Africa, the artist Helen Martins and Koos Malgas transformed her home into the Owl House. This “house of light” is a heritage-listed monument in Nieu Bethesda, historically a Dutch Calvinist town in the Karoo desert. Drawing on this site, I examine the relations between race, property and labour.

Anselm Franke, Ghalya Saadawi, Laura Harris and Hypatia Vourloumis responded to the question:

Whose Owl House?

Report by Ayesha Hameed:

A printed booklet is handed out with the script for the talk that looks at how property, race and tourism converge the Owl House – the ‘house of light’ and heritage-listed monument in Nieu Bethesda, a historically a Dutch Calvinist town in the Karoo desert, South Africa, which was home to artists Helen Martins and Koos Malgas from 1945–76. McCulloch tries to undo the privilege of whiteness in the construction of writing and place and explore the contemporary environment understood through writing. The challenge is to explore how whiteness can notice itself without re-inscription, and to consider whiteness as a form of habitation, looking and witnessing. The text narrated in the first person looks at the history of the area of Graaf Reinet in South Africa. It follows the story of the artist’s first visit to Owl House, its physical, historical context and ornamentation – the difficulty of navigating through it. She describes the relationship between Martins and Malgas and the dynamics behind the production of the sculptural works. Owl House is contextualized in relation to outsider art, which the artist suggests obscures the colonial, economic and racial relationships that underpin the house’s creation. Owl House to her is private but also uninhabitable. 

Anselm Franke had thought the essay/presentation would return to the question of the white writer with which it began. He asked: ‘How does this history play out in terms of pre-existing conflicts between Xhosa and San in the realm of the countryside/ pastoral?’ Possessive individualism – liberties, self-properties – are connected to libidinal economies as well, he noted suggesting the artist develop the relationship between colonial property and writing.

Hypatia Vourloumis liked how the narrative began with a landscape of roads, which she saw as similar to the extremely straight colonial roads in Indonesia. Travelling to Owl House on segregated lines made her think of a poem by Kamau Braithwaite on lines. She said of the presentation that roads and writing were seen as lines, and that the description of Compass Mountain highlighted how time is colonized – a temporal segregation on top of the racial. This analysis brought her to ask: ‘What is the relationship between the two?’ She felt it worth considering the compass that refuses to look East and so refuses to look at the township. 

Laura Harris said the cogent analysis asked: ‘How does whiteness inscribe itself without reification?’ She advised considering another key – ‘how to let whiteness become visible’– through juxtaposition or the figure of the house.

Ghalya Saadawi noted how form was used to consider the voice as well as possession and dispossession. ‘If language is the home of whiteness then other linguistic forms need to be used, so voice is a site to retreat to,’ she said. 

About Samantha McCulloch