AiW Guest: Anthea Gordon
To get to the South African National Art Gallery (SANG) you walk through the Company Gardens in Cape Town’s city centre. After passing baobab trees, a rose garden, and fountains in the middle of green lawns, you reach the gallery, set against the monumental backdrop of Table Mountain.
Such scenic surroundings are a fitting venue for the recent exhibition of the work of landscape artist Moses Tladi: ‘Moses Tladi Unearthed’. Not only because the approach to the gallery is a reminder, as is Tladi’s art, that South Africa is a place where the landscape calls out for appreciation at every corner. Also because SANG was one of the first spaces where Tladi exhibited his work, in 1931 and 1933, making him the first black artist to have paintings on display at the gallery. The current exhibition is in this sense both a celebration of South Africa’s natural beauty and Tladi’s long neglected talent, and a reminder of the complex history of land and landscape art in contemporary South Africa.
As the exhibition documents, Moses Tladi, born in 1903, was a gardener for the Read family at Lokshoek house in Johannesburg. Tladi started painting with house paint and a stick, and his talent was soon “discovered” by his employer Herbert Read. After this, Herbert Read and his friend the art connoisseur Howard Pim, encouraged Tladi and bought his art in a bid to support his talent.
No major exhibition of Tladi’s work has been mounted before. The current exhibition is therefore a rare chance to see the consistence of Tladi’s distinctive style. Filling one of the main gallery rooms in SANG, the exhibition is small but striking. Tladi’s paintings are alternated with the works of other contemporary landscape artists. These include sketches by Tladi’s patron, Herbert Read, as well as works by artists such as George Pemba and Gerard Bhengu. Though SANG calls this an ‘in-context’ approach, and it does indeed offer scope to compare Tladi with the work of his contemporaries who often depicted strikingly similar scenes in their own styles, the effect slightly fragments the collection of Tladi’s work and rather than just adding context seems instead intended to emphasise the distinctiveness of Tladi’s style.
Even so, Tladi’s paintings together offer beautiful and vibrant vignettes of the South African landscape. Some have a magical quality, due to the distinctive glowing pink and yellow light (figure 1), or in the capturing of the striking moment of a sudden downpour – grey rain veiling the fields in the foreground but leaving a glimpse of blue sky and sunlit mountains in the distance (figure 2). Other paintings hone in on details of the landscape such as rocks in the foreground, in a style evocative of the 19th century European Impressionist movement (figure 3). Indeed, the influence of Impressionism on Tladi is noted by Herbert Read’s granddaughter Angela Lloyd-Read as arising after Tladi’s visit to the Johannesburg National Gallery: a visit arranged by Howard Pim in the 1920s to see paintings including Monet’s Le Printemps (1875).
Although important in bringing together much of Tladi’s work for the first time, the exhibition does not offer extensive elaboration on the historical context of Tladi’s work and its exhibition history. Many questions are hinted at, though largely left unanswered. As the introductory write-up suggests, Read’s granddaughter, Angela Read-Lloyd has been largely responsible for re-establishing Tladi’s reputation through her research into Tladi’s life and work. This culminated in her book The Artist in the Garden: the Quest for Moses Tladi where she tells the story of her search for Tladi’s work and the story of his life, as well as collecting together contemporary sources on his exhibitions and the art world of the period. As such, the current view of Tladi is largely shown through the prism of his relationship with the Read family, and its continuation via Read-Lloyd’s friendship with his granddaughter: the exhibition points out that Read’s book is ‘the only serious assessment’ of Tladi’s art. At times therefore it can be hard to glean a sense of Tladi’s life outside this framing.
In 1931 when Tladi’s work was first exhibited at SANG, the gallery had only recently opened and two of his paintings ‘Spring’ and ‘Witwatersrand Winter’ were shown as part of the First Annual Exhibition of Contemporary National Art. These paintings were for sale at a fraction of the price of the other art works in the exhibition: a reflection not of value but of social and racial prejudice. Two years earlier at an exhibition in Johannesburg for the National Academy in 1929, Tladi’s work was presented in a category of its own, separated off by the title: ‘special exhibit by native artist’ (Read-Lloyd). In The Artist in the Garden Read-Lloyd initially tries to consider possible positive reasons for such categorisation, such as ‘to draw attention to a remarkable new talent’ or for more practical reasons such as that he was a ‘last minute entry’, but it seems more likely that this is also a reflection of the prejudices of the time, which limited the display of art by black artists.
Reviews of Tladi’s work from the 1920s and ‘30s are enthusiastic, but also have racist overtones and a patronising bent, imbued with a sense of needing to justify or explain Tladi’s skill in a society that saw black people as inferior. They include such observations as:
‘Moses Tladi is only 22 years of age, and he has plenty of time to show that artistic ability is not affected by the colour of the colourer’ (Pim Feb 18 1928)
‘Moses Tladi, the garden boy, who, without any training, paints in oils and water colours. Painting in the European technique among the Bantu is an original phase. Moses Tladi has established a reputation in landscape. He found his talent by toying with discarded paints and brushes.’ The Star, 1931, ‘Bantu Art Drifts form the symbols of Spirituality’ (quoted in Read Lloyd p.102)
These comments are characterised by what Elza Miles explains as the paternalistic overtones of a white elite who prevented black artists from accessing professional training, in order to maintain the ‘romantic view of the ‘noble savage’. This romantic view looms over Tladi’s work and the way it is discussed. Lloyd-Read’s discussions of his paintings are peppered with observations such as that they offer ‘a glimpse into a poetic soul’, or characterise ‘felicitous country pieces’ suggesting impulsive serendipity rather than artistic selectivity, whilst the phrase ‘instinctive’ is repeated several times in relation to Tladi’s work. Whilst these descriptions are by no means comparable to the reviews of the 1920s and 1930s, they nevertheless rely on a view of Tladi as a natural and spontaneous artist, and comment on his character and assumptions regarding his method, rather than focusing on the qualities and style of his work. There is clearly a need for more varied and nuanced art historical approaches and language to be developed in relation to Tladi’s work.
In recent scholarship Tladi has been established as a foremost South African landscape painter; his paintings are acknowledged as a ‘legacy of landscapes in oil painting comparable to the best ever painted in South Africa’ (Miles). His paintings have been variously described as examples of ‘South African Impressionism’ (Miles) and as works that ‘draw on the old vocabulary of the sublime’ (Godby), while he is also noted by the SANG to be a ‘realist landscape painter’. Whether this range of descriptions is testament to the versatility of Tladi’s style, or the difficulty of placing his work within a distinct art historical framework remains unclear. What is, however, a pertinent question that remains in spite of a consensus about his talent is the extent to which the aesthetics of Tladi’s art can be considered apart from the politics and society in which he painted?
For African artists like Tladi, landscape painting can be seen as a quietly defiant act: taking possession through art at a time when actual land ownership and freedom in public spaces were under threat. Miles talks of the period of the early 20th century and before as a time when ‘African artists claimed a place with pencil, pen, brush and chisel’ in spite of it also being a period of ‘conflict and deprivation’. This sense of ownership, however, works both ways as landscape painting and colonisation are historically intertwined: ‘it is not entirely coincidental that South Africa was first settled by Europeans at a time that landscape painting established itself in Europe: the genre…obviously represents a means of taking control of space’ (Godby).
The contradiction between landscape painting as an act of ownership and the increasingly racialised land ownership policies in the years leading up to apartheid and beyond is seen in the paintings with which the exhibition opens. These paintings show not the untended natural landscape but those defined by human interference – from early scenes of Lokshoek, the house in which Tladi worked as a gardener and where he first began to paint, to the poignant and unfinished painting of his house in Kensington B, from which he and his family were forcibly moved in the 1950s, and after which time Tladi never painted again, dying tragically young at the age of 56. In one sense these are examples of personalised memorialisation of scenes now lost to history, but preserved through painting.
However these scenes can’t escape simultaneously acting as a reminder of the context in which Tladi was painting, and the politicised nature that land occupied in South Africa through the course of his life. By the time Tladi’s work was exhibited in the 1930s the land use act of 1913 had been in place for nearly 20 years: already land and its ownership had become racialised. Not just land but public spaces were controlled according to race, something which affected Tladi directly and not only in terms of how his work was responded to but also who was allowed to view it. As Read Lloyd points out: ‘Tladi’s work may have been accepted among the artists, but attendance to see such work was regulated by race. It was recorded that “during the hours reserved for the attendance of natives, about 600 natives were able to view the exhibits” (Read Lloyd).
The approach the exhibition takes, and the writing by people such as Read-Lloyd and Miles, oscillates between acknowledging the history and political circumstances of the paintings and treating the paintings as simply the beautiful recording of an ever-changing natural landscape. This aims to move beyond the politicised and racialised nature of everyday life South Africa has experienced in the 20th century, and suggests the liberating potential of art as creating a space beyond and outside of such history. Yet in doing so, a more nuanced understanding of the political and historical context from which the paintings emerge is potentially obscured, and as such the resonance of this period and the importance of remembering it in both the history of art and history of South Africa. Tladi’s significance as an artist at a particular moment in South African history, and its implications, historical and ongoing, remain difficult to fully comprehend. In reanimating Tladi’s work and providing a rare chance to see his scenes that capture the light and scale of the South African landscape in a bold but sensitive style, this exhibition perhaps serves as a timely reminder that is still room for much more to be written, discussed and understood about Tladi, his work and his place in South African art and history.
Read Lloyd, Angela. The Artist in the Garden: The Quest for Moses Tladi. Print Matters: South Africa, 2009.
Read-Lloyd, Angela. ‘Moses Tladi, Landscape Painter: South Africa’s First Black Artist Working in the Western Tradition.’ Journal of Contemporary African Art, Duke University Press, 2013.
Godby, Michael. The Lie of the Land: Representations of the South African Landscape. Iziko: South Africa, 2010
Miles, Elza. Land and Lives: A Story of Black Artists. Johannesburg Art Gallery: Johannesburg, 1997.
Moses Tladi’s paintings are reproduced here with the kind permission of Iziko Museums of South Africa.
Anthea studied English and Related Literature at the University of York. She has worked at PEN International and written for Think Africa Press, and recently returned to London from Abuja where she lived for a year, working for Nigerian publishing company Cassava Republic.