Wits Art Museum (WAM) is excited to host the seminal exhibition, Moses Tladi (1903-1959) in celebration of Moses Tladi. Previously shown at Iziko South African National Gallery (SANG), Johannesburg viewers will now have the opportunity to explore the life and work of one of South Africa’s great, but largely unknown landscape painters. Many of the works on the exhibition come from the Tladi family’s private collection.

Tladi was born at the beginning of the 20th century in rural Sekhukhuneland and was educated by German missionaries. His career as a painter began in the early 1920’s when he moved to Johannesburg and worked as a gardener for Herbert Read. The exhibition is accompanied by the book, The Artist in the Garden: The Quest for Moses Tladi, edited by Angela Read Lloyd, the Read’s granddaughter and published by Print Matters.

Tladi was the first black painter to exhibit in a public art arena in South Africa and become widely known at the time. He was described in 1928 in a local newspaper; Umteteli wa Bantu, by the then mayor of Johannesburg and influential collector and patron of art, Howard Pim, as a “Native genius”. He was the first and only black artist to have work included in the 1931 South African National Gallery (SANG) exhibition. However his flourishing career was cut short by the Second World War, his own ill health, and the ruthless hand of apartheid. He died in 1959 and his name faded into obscurity.

Tladi’s landscapes reflect social, economic and political contexts in which he lived and worked. Although appearing to be neutral, landscapes as a genre inevitably raise questions about power, ownership and belonging. Tladi’s paintings present the countryside of his birth, his place of work, Johannesburg’s urban landscape, his deployment during the war to Kroonstad and his home in Kensington B. Forced removal and land dispossession as well as class, patronage and the establishment had a profound impact on his artistic choices. Known as the “Basuto-boy” in Bernard Lewis’ 1931 text, The Cape of c.1931, Tladi’s paintings told “the stark truth” about the atmosphere of the Transvaal in a “poetic way”. His title of being the first black painter to appear in the formal art world was as a result of the South African-ness infused in his painted subjects. This speaks volumes to the kinds of urban landscapes that existed in Johannesburg and in Tladi’s era.