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– artist, philosopher and activist (1929? – 2011)

Outa LappiesIt’s impossible to describe, in a short tribute to this remarkable man, the extent of his vision, art and the ideals that guided his long and complex life.

Outa died from burn wounds on Thursday July 7, after his patchwork coat – familiar to his thousands of friends and acquaintances in South Africa and abroad – caught fire. He was preparing to go into town, Prince Albert, 45 kms away, to do business. As usual he fed his cats, strays all, then made a small fire to heat water for washing. As he turned, the tail of his coat caught fire.

He was taken to Prince Albert hospital with 80% burn wounds, fully conscious, greeting everyone gallantly as was his way. There he was given morphine and airlifted by Red Cross ambulance to the burn unit at the George Hospital, but he died shortly after admission.

Tomorrow (July 16) he will be buried in Prince Albert, a simple funeral, his three children and several nephews and nieces in attendance, as well as a sprinkling of Prince Albert locals and distant friends.

For the last 14 or 15 years, he has lived outside the town where he had to fight many battles for acceptance. His long-ago struggles against eviction from his home which resulted in a personal march to Parliament are documented in newspaper articles by the outsiders who were the first to acknowledge him as a man to be reckoned with for his art, his philosophies and his principles. He told how his father, an itinerant sheep-shearer, taught him to “make something out of nothing” and this became the guiding principle of his life.

Outa’s beliefs were made manifest in his famous embroideries which documented his wanderings through the country, by some reckonings a staggering 16 000 kms in the course of his life. These he called his “chapters” and depicted his philosophies and his life’s journey. His art also expressed itself via scrap metal, broken glass, reeds, feathers and other found objects, chiefly in small lanterns, and his now iconic “karretjies” or wagons which he gave away, or sold, or, once a year, trailed behind him on a ceremonial ride into town to deposit money into the bank for his daughter’s birthday. She, seated aloft in a wagon yoked to Outa’s shoulders, nothing less than a princess for the day.

This was the wagon to which he yoked himself , like an ox, and set off on an extensive journey throughout South Africa. Outa Lappies was a tall, lean and very strong man, “strong as an ox” he declared, and like an ox, he would “toil and carry the yoke of his life”. The coat, patched together with scrap fabric and lined with hessian, was made and worn as a stand against those who ridicule poverty – like the people who laughed so many years ago, when his young cousin went to church in Klaarstroom in rags.

Outa documented his life in a file bulging with personal records, which included letters from countless friends around the world, including Cherie Blair, wife of the former British Prime Minister, to whom he sent a karretjie. When his art began to be acknowledged, mainly by outsiders and foreigners, he began sending his “chapters” to museums abroad often via lifelong friends that he made when they arrived in Prince Albert on a pilgrimage to meet the famous patchwork philosopher of the Karoo.

The myth that he lived in a tree is only partly true. For some years he was given refuge in a garden in de Beer Street, where he slept beneath an aged pear tree which was festooned with his lanterns and laundry. His residency, wherever he lived, was always tenuous and he moved from place to place, eventually to a derelict farmhouse 20kms outside Prince Albert, and finally to an abandoned house at Prince Albert Road Station, where the train doesn’t stop any more.

It was at the farmhouse that he built the stone and cement wall embedded with glass and metal that so strongly resonated with the work of Helen Martens (The Owl House) whom he had never met or heard of. Whenever he was settled he planted banks of sunflowers “as a tribute”, he said, “to van Gogh” and it was these flowers, by day, and at night the flickering lanterns, that would light the way for travellers to and from Prince Albert, frequently stopping them in their tracks. Hospitable to a fault, Outa would stop and talk and they would listen in wonder, and carry his tales back home with them, all over the world. Nobody ever forgot an encounter with Outa and his life-file bulged with letters (some from Royalty), photographs and countless newspaper and magazine cuttings.

In 2001 he was named Western Cape Tourism Personality of the Year, an accolade which made little difference to his life which was lived in poverty to the end.

There are plans create a museum at the little house at the station on the N1, recording his life and work. Until then his work is being curated by the Fransie Pienaar Museum in Prince Albert. Donations may be sent to the PA Educational & Heritage Trust, Account number 9079310467, at ABSA Prince Albert branch code 334-708. Kindly use the reference OUTA.

By Elaine Hurford | Photo: Gudrun Toelstede

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