Artist’s Beautiful Haunting

Chris Cloete with one of his signature glowing landscapes.

Chris Cloete with one of his glowing landscapes. Photos: Linza de Jager

Melkbosstrand artist Chris Cloete (51) keeps on returning to a place in his memories. It is the farm, or one of two farms rather, on which he grew up outside Nieuwoudtville in the Northern Cape. He was the son of the farm manager, born into a shack with a zinc roof on the farm Glen Riche, a distance from the farm Heldersig, where his father worked.

Now, so many years later that he can scarcely bother to calculate how long it has been, the farmhouse on Heldersig and the tragedy that took place in it, remains vividly with him. Three people were murdered in that house and a fourth person was severely injured by the Flower Gang that had driven up from Cape Town.

The farmer’s son, Herman, with whom he used to play, might have survived the attack. Chris does not know. (He did survive it.)Because by that time the Cloete family had long moved away, and was living in Vredendal. Chris has never been back to the farm, he says pensively. He’s not entirely sure whether he would want to go back either, because his memories are so bittersweet. And if he were to walk around on the farm, would there be any of the old people around to recognise him?

Rich in symbolism
“What is the name of the painting?”
A momentary pause. “The red landscape of Nieuwoudtville,” Chris replies. Then he apologises, “I am not good with giving names.” “You are,” I reassure him. Because it is true. The painting’s name fits it.

A combination of wonder and fear.

A farm scene that is rich with symbolism.

Chris is struggling with the onset of flu, but he talks readily about the canvas that dominates the bedroom in his neat little RDP house. Talking about the predominant palette of warm red hues he says, “As I see it, this is a story about a sunset. The weather is harsh in this region, but there is a calmness.” Heldersig is close to the road, he recalls. The farm Glen Riche where he lived was higher up, closer to the mountain. He says, “If something happened on Heldersig, one only got to hear about it the following day.”

The red road
There’s another memory, too, of a red road that used to fill him and the other farm children with fear. The road was the colour of ochre, Chris explains. There were lots of snakes about, but the worst thing was the old water well in which it was rumoured  a water snake lived. “We respected that well. We did not drink water from it.” Chris’s mom added to his fear of this road by telling him that “crooks and vagrants walked along this road – the people who don’t come out by day, but by night. The people who walk, but walk nowhere.”

It is a wonderful and terrible memory, and Chris captured it on a canvas in this bedroom that doubles as his studio by day. We sit facing the painting. Thinking. “I was wondering whether I should add a few sheep. Or a wind pump? But no,” Chris decides. “I’ll look at it a bit more, and then I’ll put on sealer.”

The landscape with its homestead, two cypresses, winding road and small houses in the distance is right just as it is. Although Chris calls it a “quick painting” it has the maturity of something that has been allowed to develop at its own pace. The warm hues are offset by shadows that are not flat black but purple-blue.

Had to leave school in st. 6
Chris had to leave school in st. 6 to work as a farm labourer. At home he drew using anything that came his way. He turned his brother’s cigarette butts into brushes, cutting them to form sharp points, and tying them with cotton thread to sticks. He used this, or charcoal, to draw on the walls of their shack or on flat rocks.

Later on his parents bought him one of those painting boxes that come with a thin brush and blocks of water-based paint. “I could have been so much further,” Chris says. Then he buries the thought of where he could have been and looks back at the glowing canvas in front of us. “It will make someone’s lounge come to life. You either have it or you don’t.”

Chris Cloete also does commissioned work. He can be contacted on 079 9282642.



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