By Philiswa Lila

In prepration of Moses Taldi’s (1903 – 1959) artworks arriving, for his retrospective exhibition, at the Iziko South African National Gallery, much research was done. Moses Tladi Unearthed, opened on the 23rd September 2015 at the South African National Gallery and is scheduled to run until the 14th March 2016.

From the start it became apparent that there was not much written about Tladi or his artworks. One book published in 2009, The artist in the garden: the quest for Moses Tladi, written by Angela Read Lloyd was, however, particularly helpful. Tladi was born in GaPhaahlain Sekhukhune Land, Limpopo. His parents were Lobethal church believers and he attended his primary schooling at a Lutheran school. As a young boy he used to herd cattle until he was in his twenties. Then, in 1927, he went to Johannesburg where he found work as a gardener. His employer was Herbert Read, Lloyd’s grandfather, who later discovered, with the help of his daughters, that Tladi had artistic talent. Tladi’s work ranged from drawings to paintings of still life to landscapes scenes. He participated, for the first time, in the Tenth Annual Exhibition of the South Africa Academy (1929), held at the Selborne Hall in Johannesburg, within a section titled “Special Exhibition by Native Artist”. His second exhibition was in the First Annual Exhibition of Contemporary National Art (1931) at the South African National Gallery which was hosted by the South African Society of Artists. This exhibition is believed to have shown the first black South African at the National Gallery.

The artist in the garden: the quest for Moses Tladi proved to provide the most information on Tladi and hence became the main source of referral for this retrospective exhibition. In the book, Lloyd seems to be writing a personal story of her family, how she grew up and later came to contact with Tladi’s artworks, in her family collection. She proceeds by providing a section where she meets with Tladi’s daughters and they all embark on a trip to Sekhukhune land – on a quest to find out more about the artist and how he grew up. Tladi’s daughters, and family, recall personal memories and tell stories about him and his creativity, however, perhaps the one thing The artist in the garden: the quest for Moses Tladi lacked was the voice of the artist himself.

From the first meeting with the South African National Gallery’s curator, Andrea Lewis, the aim was, then, to find Tladi’s voice. His presence remained in his artworks, which is why this retrospective exhibition was important. The first batch of artworks arrived on the third week of August. When the unwrapping began, it became evident that Tladi produced artworks that were quite small in scale. Lack of material or transportation could have been reason for this. The collection came from London and belonged to Tladi’s daughter, Mapula Tladi, who is also based in London. She was able to travel down to South Africa and was one of the main speakers at the exhibition opening. Other artworks, by Tladi, came from Lloyd’s family collection, The Johannesburg Art Gallery and private collectors. The curator, Lewis, made a decision to exhibit landscape paintings, in oil paint and watercolour, as she felt landscape paintings embodied most of Tladi’s art making career.

Tladi 1 Tladi 3

The paintings show subtle pictorial and sublime landscape scenes. The surface of the canvas is worked with visible brush marks, with colours occasionally worked on top of the other. These became visible under the microscope when the artworks were taken to the conservation department, of the South African National Gallery, in the care of Angela Zehnder. Images of this process (that is, of viewing the artwork under the microscope and a UV light) are shown as part of the exhibition.

Tladi’s work asks the viewer to study nature. The viewer not only looks, but is taken into the landscape through the orthogonal lines of the mountains and skies and, through, the way he depicts light shining either from a distance or, in-between the close up depictions of trees and rivers. In this way we experience a shared moment with the artist. Time is either felt, through these artworks, as a distant past memory or as a far away, dreamy future. One can also notice how many of these landscape scenes no longer appear the same as they did when Tladi painted them. Tladi’s work does not only take you on a journey but is, in itself, a journey through time.

Moses Tladi Unearthed runs at the Iziko South African National Gallery until 14 March 2016

Article by Philiswa Lila | Images by Nala Xaba