Two families linked by art

2010-02-17 00:00

BOOK REVIEW

The Artist in the Garden: The Quest for Moses Tladi

Angela Read Lloyd

Print Matters

SINCE the early nineties, South African art historians have done a great deal of research into the black artists of the 20th century and earlier.

Disregarded or patronised as ­“native painters”, and seen as either producing indigenous craft or merely aping in a n ä ive fashion the traditions of Europe, very few of them found patrons who recognised their worth, and many of those who did manage to exhibit later fell into ­obscurity, their work scattered and their worth devalued.

It is telling that in the mid-seventies when Angela Read Lloyd began her research into Moses Tladi, a prominent art gallery owner refused to believe that the work she was showing him could have been painted by a black artist. Tactfully, she doesn’t name him in her book; ­perhaps she should have.

Read Lloyd’s “rediscovery” of ­Tladi, once her grandfather’s ­gardener, is to be applauded. And in this book, she has created her own moving quest narrative at the same time. It has been a quest for Tladi’s work, his family and his history as well as a quest into Read Lloyd’s own family past, often bringing about painful discoveries. And the whole is deeply rooted in South Africa’s history — social, political and artistic.

Read Lloyd had no personal ­memory of Tladi, but the garden where he worked, and for which he seems to have shared her grand­father’s passion, was her childhood playground.

It was in the mid-seventies that she returned to South Africa after many years overseas, and slowly began her journey into a past that included ­Tladi. Her search discovered many things about being a black artist, first in the colonial and then the apartheid days.

Her writing is often acerbic; her eye is sharp and her description of the growing trust between herself and the artist’s family, once she has managed to find them, is moving. She shows the difficulties of building bridges between South Africans, however good the intentions on both sides.

It makes her book more than a ­rehabilitation of one of the country’s early black landscape artists: it is ­also a sensitive exploration of where we are and where we have been.

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