THE NEW YORKER: By Rosa Lyster

Nieu-Bethesda is far away from most places. It was the last village in South Africa to get electricity, in 1991, and it still doesn’t have a gas station or an A.T.M. Ringed by mountains, it feels like the sort of place where compasses would stop working, where Victorian-era explorers would lay down their pith helmets and die for no good reason. When I first arrived there, after a long drive through the Karoo desert, I was spooked by the village’s close, hallucinatory green. I had always thought of willows as resolutely midsize trees, but the ones lining the dirt road into Nieu-Bethesda were monumental. They took up whole gardens, draped themselves over roofs and ornamental ponds. When the wind blew through them, it sounded like fire. My sense of the village changed with with the light: it was a haven, a prison, a haven again. The horses shied at things I couldn’t see, and every afternoon the dogs started barking all at once, at nothing.

The last time that Nieu-Bethesda could reasonably be described as thriving was about a hundred years ago. There is no real reason to go there, except to see the Owl House, which was built by the reclusive artist Helen Martins and maintained as a museum after her death. As Martins’s relative fame has grown over the years, traffic to the village has steadily increased. Tourists like me come for the weekend, visit the Owl House, sigh at the mountains and the silence, and leave with glass-eyed owl statuettes, or perhaps little owl refrigerator magnets. Martins’s work and life have become the subject of books, films, dissertations, plays, and cheery tourist brochures that determinedly downplay the more distressing elements of her biography…read more

Photograph: Jared Fig | The Owl House, built by the reclusive South African artist Helen Martins