The Valley of Art
An isolated farm gully in the northern area of the Eastern Cape mountainlands is the site of one of the most creative outdoor art exhibitions in Africa
Back in the 1930s, an original outdoor rock art exhibition inspired artist Walter Battiss
Somewhere in the middle of a massive sandstone circle surrounded by the settlements of Aliwal North, Molteno, Jamestown and Burgersdorp lies a farm called Leliekloof – the Valley of Art.
Clearly this was once a place a lot of people wanted to get to. There are many signs to it, but not all of the winding roads are suited for platkarre (sedans) anymore. So, taking it slow in our old diesel bakkie, we carefully follow a hand-drawn map provided by Leliekloof’s Minnie de Klerk.
This is remote mountain country, outlaw country. Getting there is half the fun. We’re
entering a world that geologists know as the Molteno Formation of the Stormberg Group, the Molteno Foundation, one of the topmost layers of the Karoo’s long geology. Local landmarks carry legendary names like Witkop and Predikantskop.
Anyone who knows the Eastern Free State would immediately recognise the sandstone formations, some baked hard by the volcanic dolerite intrusion of 182 million years ago. We drive through a landscape of conical krantztopped hills and waving grasses, and evergreen ouhout, a distinctive woody shrub that is distantly related to the rose family.
Everything that thrives here is frostresistant, some kind of survivor. There are the same Lombardy poplars you see between Bethlehem and the Golden Gate, some ragged from frequent lightning strikes. There are rosehip plants, brought to the mountainlands by missionaries wanting to save people from vitamin deficiencies, or so the story goes.
At Leliekloof Farm, Minnie and her husband Dries emerge from their sandstone home, which lies at the edge of a trout dam. “Welcome to the Valley of Art,” they say.
We find ourselves here because of a special birthday party we attended earlier this year down in Somerset East, to honour the life and work of the artist Walter Battiss. In between
festivities, my husband Chris was rootling about the displays at the Walter Battiss Art Museum. He discovered Walter’s first book, The Amazing Bushman (1939), scanned through it and told me in rather excited tones, “Jules, look, this is our next assignment. It’s up in the Stormberg mountains.”
Back in the 1930s, a young and avant-garde Battiss was the first of his fraternity to feel the magic and realise the importance of Bushman art, which resides in thousands of caves and overhang shelters, and is etched on ironstone outcrops across Southern Africa.
Visits to sites like Leliekloof inspired
Battiss’ work just as much as time spent with his friend and mentor, Pablo Picasso. In The Amazing Bushman, Walter says of Leliekloof:
‘The valley is a treasure-house of Bushman art. There are hundreds of paintings, most of them surprisingly fresh and clear. More valuable still, the artists who lived in this paradise produced work of amazing beauty.
I remember the aesthetic emotional experience that befell me when I saw the Botticellis in Florence. It was my rare privilege to have the same experience in this Valley of Art.’
Our hosts know and love the immense and, in places, fast-fading, collection very well.
Dries grew up in these parts and discovered the shelter system back in his child-explorer days. He later showed it all to his new wife Minnie and she was hooked. Dries is currently preparing to go jackal hunting on a distant farm tonight, so Minnie will look after us and do the guiding on our trip to the shallow sandstone canyon tomorrow.
Just before sunset, Chris and I take a meander about the farm. We head down a poplar-lined road towards a distant farmstead that serves as a guest house. It snugs just below a ridge of huge sandstone boulders that look like baby dragons hatching. There is no doubt that we are in a kingdom of mountains, where massive rock formations rule.
Leliekloof lies at the heart of an ancient migration route. In summer, the heights of the Drakensberg and Malutis were grassy, wellwatered and full of game, so that’s where the people (then the San or Bushmen) would stay during the warmer months.
As the days started getting shorter, they and all kinds of wild animal herds slowly descended the high slopes after the first frosts hardened the grasses and sealed away their nourishment. They headed towards the Karoo with its thickly vegetated plains and higher temperatures. Everyone passed through here. This must have been a gathering place for the clans, a kind of nagmaal spot for First People. In the days when they were the only humans around, the Bushmen would have travelled about in many little families. These Eastern San (/Xam) Bushmen typically stayed in groups no larger than 15 or so.
Minnie wonders if they sometimes swopped members when there were squabbles and unhappiness, or found their wives and husbands from other clans, so they remained interlinked and in touch. In fact, when she tells you about the artists who once worked here, she speaks in tones of admiration and
OPPOSITE: The road into a place of grasses, ouhout, sandstone and beautiful San art. ABOVE: Minnie de Klerk atop the shallow sandstone canyon carved by the Skulpspruit. In this canyon are at least a dozen overhangs with remarkable rock art. BELOW LEFT: Walter Battiss devoted his first book, published in 1939, to the ‘little painters’ whose work he found so inspiring. He had only 200 printed. BELOW RIGHT: The Mantis Dancers, slightly faded from the 1930s when Battiss saw them. They have mantis heads, ‘wings’ and claws. There are the faint outlines of striped loincloths and ‘hairs’ on their backs.