In 1929, at the tenth annual exhibition of the South African Academy held in Johannesburg, eight works by Moses Tladi (1903-1959) were displayed. Two years later, in 1931, two of his landscape paintings were included in the exhibition that formally opened the South African National Gallery in Cape Town. In both instances Tladi was the first black painter to have his work publicly exhibited in these venues. Tladi, the “native artist” was a curiosity, arousing wide interest. Benny Lewis, the art critic of The Star, reviewed the two National Gallery paintings: “I must refer to two landscapes . . . by Moses Tladi, a Basuto houseboy in Johannesburg, who is quite untaught. They are something of a portent. In a naive technique all his own, Tladi tells the stark truth in a poetic way. The atmosphere of the Witwatersrand is in these pictures unmistakable to all who know the Transvaal” (Cape, December 11, 193, quoted in Read Lloyd, 2013, 11).
The pointed delineation of Tladi’s race; the amused notation of the incongruity of the pairing of his two occupations- “houseboy” and landscape painter; the lauding of an artist whose native primitiveness must somehow be protected from the refinements of European art, together with the tone of the review, condescension mixed with an almost surprised approbation, convey the general tone of the responses that Tladi’s work drew.
Tladi was born in in 1903, in Lobethal, GaPhahla in the north of South Africa. In 1920 he moved to Johannesburg in search of work, his journey reprising the path of many young black South Africans who migrated from rural areas to the mining towns and to the new urban centers of South Africa. He was employed by Herbert Read, an Englishman who had emigrated to South Africa to work in Rand Mines, the largest and wealthiest of South Africa’s mining companies. Read built a large home on extensive grounds in one of Johannesburg’s wealthier suburbs, Parktown, where Tladi became his gardener. Tladi’s talent as an artist was discovered accidently by his employer who became his patron, buying him materials and encouraging his talent. Read introduced him to Howard Pim, his neighbor, himself an avid art collector, an accountant for De Beers, later a mayor of Johannesburg, active in the establishment of museums and libraries in Johannesburg, and one of the founders of South Africa’s Institute of Race Relations. Pim actively promoted Tladi’s career, taking him to see artworks at the National Gallery in Johannesburg and organizing his first exhibition. The implication of the huge capital accrued by South Africa’s mining companies and their ruthless exploitation of black labour in Tladi’s narrative cannot be ignored. Angela Read Lloyd, Herbert Read’s granddaughter, who has conducted extensive research on Tladi’s life and art and who has been largely instrumental in reviving interest in his work, is at pains to stress the benevolence of Read and Pim and the unusual liberal, anti- racist attitudes that they displayed. Saul Dubow has pointed to the limitations of Pim’s liberalism, and has drawn attention to markedly racist statements that confirm his sense of Black inferiority and to his early support of segregation (148-50).
Angela Read has demonstrated how Tladi’s career is framed by the degradations of South Africa’s racial policies: He was clandestinely smuggled into the Johannesburg National Art Gallery by Pim to see and learn from the art on display. As Pim records: “I took Moses Tladi to the Gallery on Saturday afternoon, and think the General Purposes Committee might like to hear from me as to this new departure. There were a fair number of people in the Gallery, but they all took Moses’ presence there as quite a matter of course and there was no hint of any difficulty” (quoted in Read Lloyd, 2013, 27). Later Tladi would have had to be specially admitted to see his own works exhibited there. When his paintings were exhibited in Grahamstown, special hours were designated when black visitors were permitted to view them. Six hundred black men and women crowded the gallery to see Tladi’s landscapes.
I saw Tladi’s paintings for the first time in March 2017, at an exhibition of his work, “Moses Tladi (1903-1959)” at the Wits Art Museum. The paintings were displayed on the upper floor of the gallery and they are notable initially for a kind of modesty and quietness that attaches to their display. The canvases are for the most part small, markedly different from some of the more flamboyant and overtly disturbing pieces housed on the lower floor. Benny Lewis is right to insist on their unmistakability – the open veld and the low mountain ranges are immediately familiar, as is Tladi’s distinctive blue- purple light -the recognizable light of my childhood. There is something deeply intimate not only in the subjects Tladi chooses, but in the sight of the paintings hung on the white walls – in the ways in which they recall the pictures in the suburban houses of my Jewish family and their friends: our claim to belonging, to our own South Africanness, our acclimatization in this particular place, that could be somehow ratified by paintings of lesser quality, of bright aloes or of the grey vistas of the Drakensberg.
At first viewing there seems little that discloses Tladi’s identity as a black painter. Sometimes it becomes momentarily and obliquely present in the description of the material that he uses – “oil on cardboard,” an indication of the scarcity of his material, his own impecunity, a sudden glimpse into the difficulty and anomaly of being a black artist in Johannesburg in the early twentieth century. For me, Tladi’s blackness materializes suddenly and hauntingly not in the landscapes but in the juxtaposition of two paintings of houses. This juxtaposition gives rise to a profoundly disconcerting realization that part of South Africa’s history is trapped in the space between these two pictures. The first is the painting of Tladi’s employer’s house, and the second, Tladi’s last, perhaps unfinished painting depicts the far more straitened circumstances of his own home.
Moses Tladi, Lokshoek Joahnnesburg. CC BY-SA 4.0
Herbert Read built his house in 1903. He named it Loshoek, the name of the Orange Free State home of his Afrikaner wife, and tried to replicate in its imposing façade and the beauty of its gardens the homes he remembered from his own English childhood. Homesickness, his own and his wife’s, is inscribed everywhere in the house. Paintings of houses are always confirmations of ownership: in Read’s case, the different representations of Loshoek confirm his prosperity and his settledness, his adamant claim to the perpetuity of his tenure.
Of the three paintings of Loshoek executed by Tladi, the most striking for me is “Loshoek, Johannesburg- front façade of house,” painted in the 1920s. Slightly blurred, the painting captures the approach to a house seen through a screen of trees and flowers. It is clear that Tladi is painting himself into his master’s house and that he is doubly present – the beautifully landscaped beds, the rows of bright colours, the grown trees turning in autumn at the right side of the painting, these are the work of his hands as is their representation in the painting. The painting allows Tladi’s two professions to merge: the artist’s skill in colour and composition expressed in the design of the garden, the garden itself Tladi’s secondary canvas, set off by the house that is embedded in its midst.
The double-storied house is solid and imposing: in the painting the straight lines of the walls and the triangular exactness of the gable are contested by the unruly shape of the cactus that fronts the house and by the undisciplined wildness of a windblown tree that obscures its visage and that contrasts with the sculpted perfection of the flower beds in the foreground and to the side of the painting. Something less neat, less formal, less English intrudes into the frame. The painting remains opaque and unyielding partly because it is so difficult to discern where the painter positions himself. Is he servant, laborer, “house boy” as Lewis so disparagingly casts him? Is there any pride or submerged proprietorship in the representation of the steady beauty of the house or any irony in the gaze that a black man directs at a way of life from which he is resolutely excluded? Is there any masked censure of the sources of the wealth so skillfully portrayed?
Hanging close to the painting of Loshoek is another painting of a house, entitled “The House at Kensington B.” The name evokes the perpetual irony of Johannesburg’s place names, the litany of Britain’s royal estates and parklands co-opted into white Johannesburg, a constant reminder of the anomalous impositions of British colonialism – Sandringham, Ascot, Bedfordview, St. Andrews. Kensington B, despite the royal pretensions of its name, is the site of Tladi’s own home, perhaps 20 km away from the manicured lawns and bright flower displays of Loshoek, in what is now the wealthy suburb of Bryanston.
The House at Kensington B
Tladi had brought the property in the 1930s, choosing not to live in Sophiatown because of his desire to bring his children up in open rural spaces that must have recalled his birthplace, rather than in more cramped urbanized places. Homesickness is writ large in this house too.
When one compares the two pictures, the house of his employer and his own house, one is struck by the difference in scale: the house at Kensington B is low, single story. It is framed by two trees– the left reaching beyond the frame of the painting, gesturing towards extended space, and the left half of the house is dappled by its shade. The house stands simply as it is – unadorned – there are no flower beds that delay the apprehension of the house’s structure. Its simplicity is in profound counterpoint to the rich decorousness of the Parktown house. The accumulation of quadrilaterals in the painting, the doors, the windows, the blunt squared- off partitions of the house, the rectangular red stoep, lend the house a stability, a sense of a secured presence. The house reminded me instantly of Seamus Heaney’s poem on his father’s house:
The house that he had planned
‘Plain, big, straight, ordinary, you know’,
A paradigm of rigour and correction,
Rebuke to fanciness and shrine to limit,
Stood firmer than ever for its own idea
Like a printed X-ray for the X-rayed body. (Crossings, xxxiii)
In 1956, Tladi’s home was expropriated under the black spot policy, the forced removal of black landowners from areas classified as white. The term “home” as a locus of belonging, of steadfastness and of proprietorship is depleted of meaning for black South Africans under apartheid rule. Tladi and his family were relocated to Soweto. Tladi did not paint again and died in 1959 at the age of 56. In what seems a final symbolic act of rage and mourning before re-location, he reportedly cut down all the fruit – bearing trees surrounding the house at Kensington B (Jolly, 2015).
Dubow, Saul. Racial Segregation and the Origins of Apartheid in South Africa, 1919–36. Springer, 1989.
Heaney, Seamus. Seeing Things: Poems. Macmillan, 1991.
Jolly, Lucinda. “Unearthing Moses Tladi,” Visual Arts, October 14, 2015.
Lloyd, Angela Read, and Moses Tladi. The Artist in the Garden: The Quest for Moses Tladi. Print Matters, 2009.
Lloyd, Angela Read. "Moses Tladi, Landscape Painter: South Africa’s First Black Artist Working in the Western Tradition." Journal of Contemporary African Art 2013.33 (2013): 20-37.