Moses Tladi
Moses Tladi
Moses Tladi's oil on canvas board Crown Mines.
Moses Tladi's oil on canvas board Crown Mines.

UNEARTHING MOSES TLADI. An exhibition of paintings and drawings. Curated by Andrea Lewis. At Iziko National Gallery until March 14. LUCINDA JOLLY reviews.

BORN more than a century ago, landscape painter Moses Taldi was the first black artist to be shown at the Iziko National Gallery in 1931. His works were last shown in London in 1997 but this exhibition is the first time a comprehensive exhibition is being shown on South African soil.

In a sense there are two parts to this exhibition. Displayed are the paintings and drawings and Angela Read Lloyd’s book The Artist in the Garden – The Quest for Moses Tladi. The book is Lloyd’s story about her connection with Tladi who worked for her grandfather Herbert Read as gardener. When he was discovered painting – using a stick, cloth and leftover paint – by Lloyd’s great aunts, Tladi was encouraged and supported by Lloyd who gave him the carriage house as his studio and introduced him to seminal players in the art world. Lloyd was stimulated to write the book when working as a guide at the Johannesburg Art Gallery. She was shocked to discover that they only had one painting by a black artist, Gerard Sekoto. Then she remembered that she had known of a black artist, although one she had never met whose name she grew up with.

According to the curator Andrea Lewis, Tladi is “very hard to place in a South African context as there has not yet been serious academic assessment of his work”. Also Lewis was only able to source 40 works. But she has worked around this by including other South African artists from the same time frame to provide viewers with a point of reference and to create conversations between the paintings. Although all the paintings on display deal with panoramic vistas these are small landscapes, intimate windows which the viewer must go up close to relate to. Similar elements, such as paths into landscape, blue gums, homesteads or mine dumps are grouped together.

You’ll find the cool milky blues of a Pierneef treed landscape – regarded as the grandmaster of landscape – in strong contrast to Tladi’s fiery tipped Erythrina tree or a section of George Pemba’s homestead next to Tladi’s three rural huts; Gerard Bhengu’s Centocow landscape (the first time it’s been exhibited) with Tladi’s two hillocks; Magaliesberg mountain scapes by John Koenakeefe Mohl and Elizabeth Drake with Tladi’s Winter Trees; mine dumps by Battiss, Robert Gwedo Goodman and Taldi; Sydney Carters signature blue gum trees next to Tladi’s tree paintings; his house in Kensington B next to his employers’ Herbert Read house in Parktown. In terms of his lack of his formal training background Lewis points out that Tladi has more in common with an artist like Bhengu than Pemba.

While Lloyd’s book can be regarded as a more personal view of Tladi, Lewis considers Unearthing Moses Tladi as having a more academic approach. Lewis explained how she encouraged the trainee curators involved in the show to question what Tladi was thinking so that through the exhibition the viewers will “hear his voice”. Not always easy as Tladi was known for being enigmatic and happier painting than being around people. What’s interesting is this exhibitions deviation from the gallery norms.

Usually, Lewis explains, artists shown at the National Gallery have reached a peak of maturity. “In any other context would we have shown a non-professional artist?” she asks. Lewis wonders what he would have achieved had he been given the opportunity.

So what the viewer is seeing in this exhibition is Tladi experimenting, still finding his way without reaching any conclusion which to my mind makes the exhibition a dynamic more open ended affair.

Lewis says that the reason for showing Tladi’s work was born of “a mixture of things”. Partly because of Lloyd’s book, but also because Lewis appreciated his response to landscape with what she terms “his instinctual approach”. Lewis appreciated the fact that Tladi was completely untrained – unlike Gerard Sekoto whose works are also included – he had no formal training and yet he created these paintings.

“One of the reasons we felt compelled to have an exhibition by Moses was because who knows how many artists we have lost out on. For me, Moses came to represent these lost stories,” she said. For Lewis Unearthing Moses Taldi becomes an attempt “to retrieve some of those lost stories” and the legacy he left behind she describes as “a modest but precious legacy”.

The use of the word unearthing in the exhibition’s title has both an atmospheric ring and a harsh reality. Tladi’s daughter Mmapula Small opened the exhibition with impressions of her father. She spoke movingly of her father’s eviction from his three acre home in Kensington B as part of the government’s forced removal action .

When the reality of the words finally hit home, his despair and anger led him to take an axe and cut down every one of the fruit trees on his land. He put his paintings in a box and never picked up a brush again. Four years later he was dead at the relatively young age of 56. It was only in 1993 when Lloyd started her quest, that Taldi’s oldest child Rekiloe, who died two years ago, opened the box.

The 1920 and 30s are seen as a very fertile time for black artists who had previously been limited to working sculpturally because until then there were no painting institutions for black artists.

Lloyd’s grandfather was passionate about traditional English gardens. Lewis believes that it was this approach to gardening that would have influenced Tladi’s concept of landscape painting –the way the trees form a composition and a path leads the eye in.

It was Read who introduced Tladi to Howard Pim a leading figure in the Johannesburg art world and one of the founders of the South African Society of Artists, who supported and mentored Tladi. It was Pim who took Tladi to see the Plein air painters who like him “captured the mood of natural scenery meticulously” exhibited at the South African Artists Society where Tladi was captivated by Claude Monet’s (Spring). Monet was also a gardener. Pim got Tladi’s work included in the societie’s 1929 exhibition and later in the National Gallery exhibitions in 1933 and 1931. Included in this exhibition is Tladi’s atmospheric Landscape with Trees which won a competition at Grahamstown Arts and Craft Festival Exhibition, open to all races in 1932.

This exhibition voices and celebrates a number of things. There’s the reminder from his daughter Mmapula Small – an anti-dote to a prevalent subscription to victimhood. Small believes that even a lack of tools or education shouldn’t stop you from expressing yourself. For many years even the apartheid system couldn’t keep Small’s father Tladi from painting or connecting with other artists across the racial divide.

The paintings themselves remind us that while the human experience can be very ugly, the South African landscape is beautiful. It’s also vital to our survival and healing. We humans are its custodians and nature is a great leveller because to a tree or a mountain it doesn’t matter who you are.

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