The Iziko South African National Gallery surely meant well when they conceived ‘Unearthing Moses Tladi’, aiming to reintroduce Tladi and his production over a 30 year period into South African art history. Unfortunately, the lifework of the talented Mr Tladi has instead been undermined by being huddled, in an attempt to ‘contextualise’ his practise, with that of his contemporaries. The true objective of the exhibition appears less to be about the work of Moses Tladi than it is about the fear of an empty room.
Moses Tladi, Cherry tree and old carriage house at Lokshoek, Mid 1920s. Oil on artist’s board
Hanging Moses with/in relation to the other painters to give a sense of comparability or some kind of lesson, denies one the complete pleasure of enjoying Tladi’s brilliance sans comparison. What really is the purpose of this illustrative hanging and display other than to ‘convince’ the viewer of his excellence or to position the bar against which he is to measured (and thus deny his singular brilliance)?
The realism and imagination in his paintings is diluted by the didactic display, which reduces the paintings simply to the visible subject/object of trees. The one to one Tladi for Pierneef relation — a tree for a tree if you will —feels like a set-up in which Moses is intended to be proven as a modernist. And to prove his exception, an exercise he never had to demonstrate in his own time of practise. If Llyod is to be believed Moses and his patrons were well ahead of their times. I will give the sound installation and projection the attention they deserve in the footnote.
Is it educational? Perhaps it is. Is it imaginative? Certainly it is not. The exhibition is terribly literal. Does it re-establish Tladi as it proposes to do? I’m of the impression it puts him into question and therefore does precisely the opposite of what any retrospective exercise is supposed to do.
He may have fallen out of the public imagination, but this exhibition based on arbitrary object relation, selected by colour and by line does not serve to reinsert him on his own terms. As evidenced by his paintings, Moses Tladi carries his own weight. If you are really interested in his rightful place in South African Art History then give him his space, without all the clutter.