Moses Tladi Unearthed at the National Art Festival

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Iziko Museums of South Africa is hosting the first major South African exhibition of the work by Moses Tladi (1903–1959) at the National Arts Festival in Grahamstown until July 10, after its debut at the Iziko South African National Gallery in Cape Town.

The exhibition at the Albany History Museum, entitled Moses Tladi Unearthed, will provide the visitor with an exceptional opportunity to view the work of this enigmatic artist. Cited as the first black artist to have exhibited formally in South Africa, Tladi developed a reputation as a realist landscape painter.

During his lifetime, he was the first black artist to exhibit at the South African National Gallery, soon after the present building was opened, first in 1931 and then in 1933.

At the Grahamstown Arts and Craft Festival Exhibition in March 1932, Tladi won the first and second prizes in the open section for landscape and seascape painting. Thus, the exhibition being presented in Grahamstown can be regarded as his second homecoming.

Moses Tladi Unearthed features approximately 30 paintings by Tladi, sourced from institutional and personal collections in South Africa and overseas. An “in context” approach showcasing other artists who worked in a similar vein, or at the same time, are also included. This survey of the artistic career of the largely unknown Tladi, brings greater insight into Tladi, in his time and place.

This exhibition is a tribute to a man who pursued his love for painting despite the difficult socio-economic conditions and hardships of his time, and re-introduces the public to this accomplished painter.

moses3Tladi’s self-taught talent as a landscape painter flourished in the 1920s and 1930s. His paintings are as colourful and peaceful as they are rough and emotive, and through his landscapes we come to understand a man whose life was tied up with the political landscape of the time.

Swept from his home in Sekhukhuneland with the wave of migrant labour to the city of Johannesburg, having his works exhibited at ‘whites-only’ galleries that he often could not enter by law, and victim to the forced removals of 1956, his talent as an artist did not exempt him from the inequalities facing black South Africans at the time.

Other than the publication of Angela Read Lloyd’s book The Artist in the Garden: The Quest for Moses Tladi (Print Matters, Noordhoek, 2009), there has been no serious assessment of the modest but precious body of work that Tladi left behind. This exhibition provides an exceptional opportunity to view that legacy. No major exhibition of his work has ever been mounted before.

Bringing together approximately 30 artworks, the exhibition endeavours to remind the general public of Tladi’s work and to re-examine his place in South African art history. It further contextualises Tladi by presenting his work alongside other practising South African artists of the time.

It is hoped that this will give some insight into the tastes and politics of the South African art world of the 1930s and 1940s – a time when figurative landscape was the dominant genre, and modernism was not yet in the ascendant.

Moses Tladi Unearthed has been funded by Iziko Museums of South Africa, the National Arts Festival, and the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation through the Centre for Curating the Archive at the University of Cape Town.

About the artist

Moses Tladi was born in 1903 in the remote Sekhukhuneland, located in the Limpopo Province (former Transvaal region).

He was the son of a traditional healer who made a living by working creatively in iron, and a mother who was a gifted potter. His early years were spent herding cattle surrounded by hills and peaks.

His parents converted to Christianity under the influence of the Berlin Missionary Society, and he was educated at the Lobethal Mission, at ga Phaahla in Limpopo. Tladi, like many young men of the time, went to Johannesburg in search of work. By the mid-1920s, he found employment as gardener to Herbert Read, at Lokshoek, in a fashionable suburb of Parktown.

After he started painting with leftover commercial house paint and a stick, Tladi’s flowering talent as an artist was discovered, and Read took him under his wing, providing him with artists’ materials. Read also introduced Tladi to the collector and philanthropist Howard Pim, who was once a mayor of Johannesburg, and played a leading role in the establishment of the Johannesburg Art Gallery.

Both Read and Pim promoted Tladi at public exhibitions from 1929 onwards. Tladi served his country during the Second World War, but continued to paint until the tragic events of 1956, when he was forced to move out of his own home to Soweto as a result of the provisions of the Group Areas Act. He died in 1959, at the age of 56.

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