Bets Botha Photos: Cynthia Zinn
Deep in the Kouga Mountains, an eight-hour walk from the nearest town, lives the artist Martin Wessels. He has been secluded on his farm for a decade, but is now tentatively returning to the world, with a well-received exhibition. Bets Botha
To secure an interview with the artist Martin Wessels, the cloistered recluse from Kouga, the mountain must go to Mohammed. On this occasion, however, Mohammed has decided he will sit atop Valhalla, among the ancient Greek gods.
Valhalla in this story is the farm Schrikkerivier, at the top of the Kouga Mountains, about 28 kilometres from Joubertina, in Eastern Cape. Here Martin has lived for the past 10 years. It’s difficult to find him. Road is rather a grand term for the two rough tracks winding through meandering streams, some ankle-deep and others up to one’s knees. They have washed away the path so that the last three kilometres are really only suitable for intrepid mountain climbers and agile monkeys.
But this is how Martin likes it. He doesn’t ask you to visit him and if you do, well, it’s at your own risk. Ultimately, of course, he must come down from his mountain hideaway to face the four kilometres or so per hour he takes to walk to Joubertina. This journey to the town takes about eight hours.
But if you do make the trek to his mountain abode, you are received with open arms. The 1 000 hectares is his home and you’re welcome to share his world on his terms. “I don’t want to be swamped by people as happened in Clarens,” he declares. The enchantment of that picturesque town in the eastern Free State has not been lost to Martin – despite the encroachment of developers – but it has left a pain within him that he won’t discuss.
But he does tell of how distressed he became at the callousness of all involved, who unscrupulously “evicted” old people from their homes, and how he himself was treated in a similar manner.
“Most of the money that adversely affected the community’s country hospitality came from abroad. This conviviality, this graciousness became artificial, even shallow. Over the past few years in Clarens, if anyone is friendly with you, you become worried. But here, in this area, the people are different – they are genuine in their attitudes towards one another,” he says.
Back in the little tourist town in Free State, Martin’s old schoolhouse was on two stands with a cave, where he used to hold music concerts. It fell outside the Clarens town borders, but as the village began to develop, more and more ground was proclaimed and suddenly Martin was confronted with an eviction order as a consequence of outstanding taxes.
For him, the writing was on the wall. The man who was responsible for Clarens’ fame as an artists’ town and who was responsible for the town’s revival by virtue of his exhibitions and concerts, sold his home and bought a farm in the Kouga Mountains. He didn’t want history to repeat itself.
For a decade he has lived on his own in the mountains, selling a painting whenever the need for sustenance rears its head. But now, he’s ready to “return to the world”. He recently held his first exhibition, which was received with enthusiasm and support.
This decision was not easy. But he is grateful to Joubertina’s NG Church minister, Ds Barnard Steyn, his wife Esté, and their children. “These people saved my life,” he muses. It’s well-known in the district that during house visits, the dominee helped the community get to know the new resident. Without fanfare, Barnard borrowed a neighbour’s tractor and would unexpectedly turn up at Martin’s house: thereafter he began to involve the artist within the bosom of the community, into which he has been accepted.
The platteland – South Africa’s rural heartland – has always had a healthy respect for eccentricity, something city dwellers don’t really appreciate or are mostly unaware of, and Joubertina’s friendly townspeople took Martin to their hearts.
For Barnard and his family, Martin has been more than a friend. He is well-read and well-travelled; he has had a solid, thorough training in art and is skilled and accomplished in a variety of disciplines. Journalist Hannes Visser has ruminated on several of occasions on the dominee and the artist: “It’s not possible to describe their friendship. It’s a friendship built on many diverse elements: books, art, mystery, religion, yet with a total absence of judgment.”
Of Martin, Barnard says: “Like so many things in life, friendship is a marvel that cannot be nicely packaged or pigeon-holed. For me, friendship is of great value … it doesn’t help me to survive but it gives value to my survival.”
Barnard’s children see Martin as a genuine guru, a regular friend and companion whose positive energy is dispensed to all those around him.
The youngest of four sons, the artist was born 64 years ago on a farm near Harrismith. His father died when he was eight years old and his mother taught music to make ends meet. As a young child he loved horses and by the time he was 18, he owned 20 of them. Even in Clarens he kept horses and farm animals, but an accident with a horse that nearly cost him sight in one eye forced him to abandon the care of these animals.
He matriculated from art school and worked as a stage manager at Sukovs before resigning and heading to London to further his studies in theatre design. In the early seventies, things were difficult in the British capital: South Africans were not welcome in many parts of the world, and England was at the vanguard of this stance. The performing arts trade union Equity had little time for foreigners, let alone foreigners from South Africa.
But because of his special talent and experience in the opera, ballet and drama departments of Sukovs, within months he was snapped up by the professional theatre community in London. After a year, and despite his successful presentations, he was claimed by wanderlust and he took off for Spain to work within a Flamenco community. After further travel through Portugal and Greece, he decided he had enough money to really move around. From Greece he went to Turkey and further on to the Middle East.
Of all the countries he visited, he spent the longest period in Afghanistan; at home, his family believed he was dead. In those days communication was bad, and he himself had not envisaged staying so long in that country. But the barren, hot land made an indelible impression on him.
“People will never get the better of those people,” he declares. The urge for freedom – that craving – is unquenchable. Afghans are not only excellent fighters, they are highly intelligent, he points out. After all, they built the world’s oldest university. (As life would have it, early this year this university was pulverised by an American bombardment.)
Martin’s life today is reminiscent of an Afghan desert traveller. His mud brick house, built with his own hands, is surprisingly resilient to storms, and the fireplace in the bedroom with its chimney protects him from the winter cold. The originality of this type of protection points to the notice Martin took of insulating measures during his wanderings. The phrase to “lightly trip through life” takes on a new meaning looking at how Martin has organised his.
For the first time in more than a decade of seclusion, he recently held an exhibition with his son, Wilhelm (Van), in Cape Town. Van is a ceramic sculptor and according to his father, he’s “bloody good”. On top of that he’s hard working and productive, says his father. Van is a champion surfboarder and looks after himself very well. Asked whether this child is the one nearest his heart, Martin answers no – “but he’s my good friend”. He is, of course, proud of all his children. Naomie is also an accomplished painter but the computers keep her busy; the youngest, Tristan-Vallodia, is a promising playwright at an art school; his eldest daughter, Danielle, is a psychologist in London.
A fascinating person with much to say, it is as a painter that Martin is best known, and the exhibition is his “re-entry” into the world outside. He speaks of how he really detests exhibitions: once, in Clarens, he stood outside his own exhibition opening and smoked a cigarette. Out strode an old “oomie”, muttering that what he saw hanging on the walls inside was “a lot of nonsense”. “What do you think,” he asked Martin. “Yes, I agree,” the artist replied. ‘Let’s rather have a few tots at the bar!”
Where did it all begin? Martin answers plainly and simply: “As children all of us liked to draw and sketch. I painted, I wanted to paint, but it’s not really a job, is it?”
Fellow artist and friend Louis Scott, a professor in the Department of Plant Science in the Faculty of Nature and Agricultural Science at the University of the Free State, explains the wonderment that surrounds Martin’s skill as an artist: “During Martin’s artistic training he experimented with a variety of media. A tutor at art school tells how he deviated from the regular standard methods and demonstrated his unbelievable individuality and originality. For this reason it is not easy to classify his work within any modern artistic movement or genre.
“He has found his own solutions to living out his own life according to the established values manifested through diverse cultures which he experienced firsthand during his travels as a young wanderer through a variety of lands. Influences on his work have come from a wide spectrum but his style of living, without the normal comforts, speaks of his direct experience of the textures and colours of nature to which he has been exposed. This reveals a very special knowledge of the world and its history and a true love of stories, fantasy, music and humour.”
Martin says that as artist growing up in South Africa, his first contact with art was through books. “This introduced me to the history of art throughout the world. My favourites were Paul Klee, Gauguin and especially Hiernonymus Bosch. But the first art I personally experienced and which left the most enduring impression on me was from my own country’s land and culture. Thousand-year-old paintings and engravings existed in beautiful but forgotten places, painted with pigment brought from faraway places, mined from the most ancient mines in the history of man: paintings which speak directly to us of man’s spiritual awakening to the world of symbols and mysticism and abstract thought.”
Stillness and seclusion are important to the artist. He devours books, especially those on science fiction, religion and philosophy. He has a great admiration for Muslims because “unlike Christians, they revere their religious holidays”. He tells of how the midday prayers in the Muslim countries he visited truly affected him. In his heart he is a Christian but for him Jesus died too young. “Until the age of 33, He was an exemplary model,” but for a man in his sixties, Martin must of necessity find another icon to follow.
He found this being in the person of Saint Anthony. He explains how Saint Anthony (circa 251-356 AD) lived during the last echoes of the antique world and at the beginning of a “new enlightened” age, where the old gods had undermined hope and the new religions committed themselves to new beliefs. (Much like what has happened today where traditional churches are being dissipated by the New Age movements.)
Saint Anthony, the son of well-to-do parents, took literally the words of Jesus: “Sell all your worldly goods and follow Me.” As a social outcast he quit community life and went to live in the mountains of Upper Egypt: a fugitive from the customary, the ordinary “irrelevance of the gentle stupidity of things”.
But what is it that interests and inspires him about the life of St Anthony? “The temptations of the holy man Anthony have for centuries exercised a fascination within the imagination of artists. Traditionally he has been depicted as struggling with devils. But he also represents the ascetic, set apart, in juxtaposition with the prosaic trivialities of the crowd.”
The ascetic’s contemplation of a perplexing yet great universe, of man with his limited lifespan and fearful and anxious subjectivity: the accent is on his inner self rather than on the external. “Anthony, the father of the desert, is the role model for and the personification of those who, in the true Christian tradition, strive for a truly hermetic and reclusive life.”
But on the question of how his perception of life today can be summed up, he quotes excerpts from Homer Simpson, the poet Wilhelm Knobel and a zen artist, melded together: “For the baby boomers, the doors of perception opened; for business from the ‘whole earth catalogue’, to the internet; from wireless radio to DSTV; from farm phone to slim phone … Everyone stands alone in the heart of the earth with a ray of sunlight piercing his being … Suddenly it is night … And just a line is left in the dust of time.”