The patchwork philosopher’s coat of many colors

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At first, the name Outa Lappies seemed nonsensical. I certainly did not consider it being the name of an artist — it was just the title Molly and I put at the top of the condition reports we were completing for a new collection of objects in the Social History Centre’s fifth floor lab. But the more work we did with these items labeled “Outa Lappies,” the more I learned about the name and the man behind it.

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Outa Lappies, born Jan Schoeman, was an eccentric artist from the Karoo region of South Africa. Known for his ability to “make something out of nothing,” he was a nomad who lived a simple life. He often slept in trees and spent much of his time traveling from place to place pulling his homemade wagon behind him. Outa is most famous for the colorful embroidered cloth “chapters” he created that use words and illustrations to tell the story of his life and his philosophies. He also made lanterns, carts, wall hangings and other decorations from found objects such as scrap metal, broken glass and plastic, wood, and reeds.

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Iziko has gathered quite a collection of Outa’s pieces for a soon-to-open exhibit in the South African Museum. While working with these objects, I was struck most by the colorful patchwork coat Outa always wore. The coat is made of countless different fabric patches, with visible stitching in colorful hues holding it together. It was actually in one of these coats that Outa died, when the coat caught on fire. Outa wore out these coats, and the one in Iziko’s possession is covered in holes and is quite dingy and faded. Our supervisor Alta spent many hours on the conservation of the coat, painstakingly sewing patches back together by hand. Despite the wear and tear, I love this colorful coat. To me, it exudes the spirit and energy of Outa Lappies. Adventures were had in that coat — life was really lived in that coat. Those are the kind of objects that inspire me most.

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