Words and Pictures by Chris Marais
Hark the wonderful weirdness of Richmond: relentlessly efficient middle-of-nowhere traffic cops on the N1, a horse museum that comes with a resident ghost, a giraffe in the bookshop corridor, a time-keeping church clock fixed by a former Blue Train driver, a classic old brickworks, a bar with saddles for seats, the most sophisticated padstal, café and overnight rooms in the Karoo, a hillside called Daggabult, a guy who took his Nommer Asseblief exchange home with him when he retired, a restaurant called Die Vetmuis (The Fat Mouse), a supper club owned by a man who comes from Canada and a summer book festival that punches way above its weight.
Bearing all that in mind, what’s so bizarre about finding a large collection of modern and contemporary South African art in this little Northern Cape settlement? In fact, it should be the order of the day.
The brains behind Richmond’s Modern Art Project South Africa (MAPSA) belong to the Pancake Mogul of the Pilgrim’s Rest district in Mpumalanga (Graskop, to be precise), and Pretoria-born, Berlin-based artist and curator Abrie Fourie. If you’ve ever taken a seat at Harrie’s Pancakes (and who hasn’t?) on the famed Panorama Route, chances are you’ll have heard of Harrie Siertsema.
Everyone bangs on about creativity and the innovative powers of artists, but the fact remains they would be beggars without the existence of devoted patrons.
We’ve been dying to meet Harrie ever since we wandered into the MAPSA gallery during a Boekbedonnerd festival some years ago. I, for one, was a little gobsmacked at the stuff on display: collections of nightsoil buckets, elegantly assembled potato bags, rusty metal jackets caught on barbed wire, signs saying “Where the Landscape Begins” and “As Far as the Eye Can Touch’, a very looooong shopping trolley, draadkarretjies, a big dog on a wooden stand, a gravestone, bones and rakes and desolate black and white photographs, a child’s mattress with a springbok horn springing out of each spring, handmade folksy cellos and images of shattered lawn furniture on the roadside.
Work, Die or Move
And then, in the gallery and all about town and etched in brick, were the words:
“Werk, Vrek of Trek.” Work. Die. Or move. The order of the words varies, and we could carry on analysing their general meaning until the last bottle of red wine has gone to meet its maker.
“Werk, Vrek of Trek.” is the motto of the local stonary. Brickmaker Trevor Snyders has taken it over from his father Oom Daniel, who first coined the phrase. You can spot it on the windscreen of their classic old Chevrolet as they drive through Richmond.
Brown Ribbon Road
On this most recent visit, we arrive after an interesting dirt road drive from the Murraysburg side, make our way to MAPSA and, within minutes, realise we’ve hit a bit of a journo’s jackpot. Harrie Siertsema is here, along with most of his creative and admin team: artists, curators and bean counters in one place.
But that’s not all. We see, for the first time, a huge wall of hand-made bricks bearing the etchings of hundreds of words. English? Afrikaans? Here’s the kicker: they work for both languages. Different meaning, different contexts for the same word.
The title of this piece is Word Woes. English: sadness in words. Afrikaans: become crazy. I just love it. It’s the original work of internationally acclaimed SA artist Willem Boshoff, who used locally-crafted alphabet bricks in the building of this unique wall, bearing words like stout, angel, hoed, burger, loot, telling, brood, prop and velvet. This wall has become a bit of a ‘selfie spot’ for passing bloggers and travellers through Richmond.
Harrie Siertsema is a big, gentle man who had a charismatic art teacher at high school before studying architecture at varsity.
“Exactly 50 years ago, when I was a 15-year-old, I bought a water-colour and ink work by Renee Brisley or R15. So I was now a patron of the arts.”
A Patron in the Pancake Business
Back in the early 1980s, some friends told Harrie about a little pancake business for sale in Graskop.
“It was called Ria’s Pancakes. It consisted of three tables and some tree stumps which served as chairs. There were two gas skottels in the kitchen and food was dished out onto paper plates. But the truth is, Ria made a very good pancake!”
He bought Ria’s shop, left the world of architecture and began to focus on pancakes. And art.
Both Graskop and Harrie’s Pancakes boomed, so the enterprising Mr Siertsema opened pancake parlours in Dullstroom, Cape Town, Cullinan, Irene and Pretoria. In the process, he transformed all the shops into alternative spaces for viewing art.
Harrie had also launched Delagoa Arts & Crafts, so he and his friend and business partner Willem van Bergen went on long road trips around Southern Africa in an old Combi with a trailer, selecting and buying items from the roadside crafters that throng many of the main routes around the region.
You know those tall giraffes you find just about anywhere these days? Harry and Willem were the first to bring them in.
Harrie began to buy up derelict buildings around the country, beginning with the Graskop Hotel. It became “the art gallery you can sleep in.” To this day, he cannot pass a remarkable old pile without wondering:
“How does the light fall inside? Will it make a good gallery?”
He’s also had a long affair of the heart with the Karoo. So one day he drove through Richmond and saw a sign:
“Te Koop (for sale) Costa se Koskas.”
Here Comes George
It had obviously been a general dealer of sorts. Harrie called the number on the sign, went to see the agent in Bloemfontein, signed some purchase papers and came down again to have another look-see at his new purchase. He discovered that the title deed covered not only the entire block, but a few other stands around town as well.
On the corner outside the former Koskas, a man called George Williams approached him.
“Let me look after this place for you,” George offered. Harrie liked the cut of his jib and hired him as a caretaker. Since then, George is the fellow you phone if the gallery is closed and you want to have a tour of the place.
Exhibiting MAPSA artist (and new Richmond resident) Andrew Munnik takes us around the gallery. A lot of Andrew’s work has to do with the plight of refugees around the world and his creations are quirkily effective. For instance, he will draw thousands of tiny human feet, arranged in the shape of a contour map. People who have been bombed and dispossessed and are on the move. Andrew’s name for this collection is Collateral Damage: Lessons for the 21st Century.
Then we meet Seretse Moletsane, a talented young artist who is also assisting in the many MAPSA projects.
“I like finding beauty in unlikely places,” he says. Welcome to the Karoo, Mr Moletsane. You have come home.
On the front stoep of one of the MAPSA houses are alphabet brick wall, designed by the German artist Ella Ziegler, who is also Abrie’s wife. The bricks on one wall ask the questions:
“Does the star feel the light?
Does the ice feel the cold?
Does the ground feel the tears?
I remember photographing that wall last winter in deep snowfall, and shivering at the profundity. Or was it simply the cold?
Abrie curates Harrie’s vast collection in locations all over the country. He buys pieces from young art students, giving them a leg-up at a crucial stage of their career.
The more you wander around the gallery, the more inscriptions and captions you read, the more sense the exhibits begin to make. At best, they inspire. At worst, they made you think.
We watch Harrie, shoeless, approaching two visitors drifting slowly through MAPSA. They give the impression of people on their maiden Karoo road trip, and they look very earnest about it all. I can see the thought bubble over their heads:
“Who is this crazy person who keeps telling us about the artworks as if he owns the place? And where are his shoes?”
It turns out that Andrew Munnik the artist is also Andrew Munnik the musician, a man after my own heart who loves the songs of Bruce Springsteen and Neil Young. I am delighted, and hive off to the Karoo Space bakkie to rootle out my old Seagull acoustic guitar.
Andrew fetches his own guitar and right there, in front of the most amazing wall I’ve ever seen, we stage a 40-minute musical soiree. Everybody claps and cheers. We two old men are thrilled. It’s another magical Karoo moment.
MAP Gallery: George Williams: 073 436 4413