Ulla and Peder Gowenius, a young idealistic Swedish couple, founded the Rorke’s Drift Art Centre in 1963. The Goweniuses introduced their students to new artistic techniques and led discussions of the students’ work. They empowered their students to communicate thoughts, feelings, and critiques through visual language. Often these ideas would have been censored if stated explicitly. As Peder Gowenius recalls: “The rules of apartheid unwittingly created a large reservoir of frustrated but creative humans, with a great need to express themselves.” Before closing its doors in 1982, Rorke’s Drift succeeded in training a generation of outstanding black artists. Their influence is still felt throughout South African cultural life.
The Rorke’s Drift Art Centre proved to be transformative not only for its students, but also for each of the European and American artists who taught at the school. Karl Bethke, an art professor at the University of Minnesota, taught there from 1978 to 1979. The experience forever changed his art practice. Since then, he has explored the colonial history of the Rorke’s Drift region and the art school through his work. Gabriele Ellertson, then a UMN art student, taught at the school between 1973 and 1979. Throughout her time at Rorke’s Drift she collected work by her students, and thanks to her bequest we are able to tell the story of Rorke’s Drift today.