/ 24 November 2000

Owl House sculptor dies

Anne Emslie obituary

Koos Malgas, best known as the sculptor of the statues at the Owl House, died this week in Graaff Reinet of a stroke.

Situated in Nieu Bethesda in the Eastern Cape, the Owl House was the brainchild of artist Helen Martins. Now a popular tourist destination, it is an example of what American art historian John Beardsley has termed the “Garden of Revelation”.

Part architecture, part sculpture garden, it is an elaborate conception that took more than 25 years to build, and embodies an integrated and visionary conception of God, man and the universe a unique and personal testament.

One commentator in the Owl House visitors’ book sums this up, as well as making a plea for its preservation: “This place should be preserved for future generations as a symbol of man’s hunger for the divine and the mystery of his dreams.”

In a more light-hearted vein, the Owl House with its eclectic mix of sculptured birds, beasts, secular and biblical characters and toy-town dwellings has been described as a sort of miniature Karoo Disney World.

Curiously, many artists and writers have found inspiration for their own work in the Owl House. They include Don MacLennan, Simon Ford, Beezie Bailey (who also worked collaboratively with Malgas) and Athol Fugard.

Fugard’s play, The Road to Mecca, a success on Broadway, has been made into a film with Yvonne Bryceland as Helen Martins.

Koos Malgas came to work at the Owl House in 1964. He accompanied his father, who was an odd-job man. Martins wanted to have the roof of her birdcage fixed.

At the time she was occupied with the creation of the Owl House and was looking for a new assistant. (Jonas Adams had left her employ, and Piet van der Merwe, who left a considerable legacy of building work at the Owl House, was busy with other projects.)

She provided Malgas with cement and an empty sardine tin and asked him to make a relief of the picture of her Anadin headache tablets label. It was of a lady holding her hands to her migrained brow. The lady in the sardine tin still rests on a window ledge at the Owl House. Malgas succeeded admirably.

He went on to create a larger version of the headache lady on the water tank and then stayed on at the Owl House until Martins, going blind, committed suicide in 1978. At the time of her death he was working on a series of elegant ladies with skirts made from tiers of beer bottles.

Like much of the other work at the Owl House, these display an ingenious use of recycled materials and reveal the considerable skill and expressive ability that Malgas had acquired as a sculptor.

The work of which he was most proud, he once said, was the huge sun mural on the ceiling of the kitchen. Like Michaelangelo in the Sistine Chapel he had to lie on his back on scaffolding as he painstakingly constructed the mosaic of paint and crushed glass.

Working in collaboration with Martins, Malgas was responsible for the building of most of the sculptures at the Owl House.

After Martins’s death he left the village and found work as a gardener at the Worcester Show Grounds.

He returned to Nieu Bethesda about 10 years ago at the invitation of The Friends of the Owl House, who were concerned about the deteriorating state of the sculptures. They wanted to initiate a restoration programme with the benefit of his expert knowledge and hands-on help.

After his retirement a few years ago he continued to assist Mark Wilby and The Owl House Foundation in a consultative and advisory capacity.

Malgas died on November 20 at the age of 63. He is survived by his wife, Johanna, three daughters and nine grandchildren. A funeral service will be held on December 2 in the Village Hall, Nieu Bethesda.

Anne Emslie is the author of The Owl House (Penguin) and A Journey Through The Owl House (Penguin)