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.

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