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Art’s heart in the Midlands

Tatham Art Gallery, Pietermaritzburg

SA Landscapes room. Pictures by Garth Johnstone
By Garth Johnstone

All cities of note have special spaces, usually museums and art galleries, that provide a refuge from the hustle and bustle of urban madness. I’m thinking public spaces, not small private galleries, where one can peruse galleries showing works of an artistic as well as a cultural significance. Often there’s an educational element, where you can learn about the local or national history or culture.

I’ve enjoyed this in places like Buenos Aires, Windhoek, Delhi, Mumbai, Ho Chi Minh City and Bangkok.

PMB is no different in this regard. We’ve written before about the KZN Museum in Jabu Ndlovu Street, which fits the bill, and I’m pleased to say that the Tatham Art Gallery in Chief Albert Luthuli Street offers plenty to enjoy, in a quiet, serene environment (with aircon nogal) – at least this was my experience when I visited the facility recently.

Info on the board outside the gallery, describing some of the exhibits.

The blurb on its website includes: “Grounded in the KZN ethos but speaking to an international set of artistic ideas this museum will surprise you with the depth and variety of its offerings,” which sums it up well, I believe.


Upon entering the building I asked the security guard on duty whether I was allowed to take photographs of artworks and she politely informed me that it was previously allowed, but was now off limits. Wanting to respect her instructions, I had to change tack from a picture heavy, short blog I’d planned, to something more descriptive and less picture driven.

This worked OK, but I soon realised there was way too much to view in one session if I was going to be writing detail about the artworks. In my opinion, you cannot effectively work your way through the gallery’s many rooms and exhibitions in one go and say you have seen and digested what’s on offer. I would recommend a few mornings to take it all in.

So here’s a random sample of what I found interesting at the gallery.

*Corina Lemmer’s My Dearest – fabric, hand and free machine embroidery, with beadwork by Ngoneni Kubekha.

“Ngoneni made copies of the beautiful love letters she and her friends sent to their boyfriends on the mines, the shapes and colours of which were a code,” Lemmer wrote. “I sewed copies of the love letters of my youth, with addresses and phases telling of our history.”

*Phumzile Dlamini’s Urban Influx – embroidered cotton.
The focus in this work is on political and economic situations that drive rural people to migrate to urban areas, where they are forced to face the harsh realities of urban life.

*Annette McMaster’s Breastplate for my Mother – threads, silk, lace, gauze, bone and fish hook.
This work serves as a moving tribute to the artist’s mother, who had breast cancer.


*Carl Roberts’s Diver – wood, stone and metal
Roberts’ female diver is at least 3m tall, a beautifully finished giant in carved wood, with sensual, fluid lines plunging head first into the water. Why do I like it? It grabbed my attention, and had interesting, big feet.

Rob Scott's Bench, among the items in the permanent collection.
Rob Scott’s Bench, among the items in the permanent collection.

*Rob Scott’s Bench – wood
Beautifully designed and crafted, 13 thin pieces of bent wood come together in an elegant bench with slopes up seductively at one end. One could imagine it in a home, a corporate HQ or just sitting quietly in a gallery as something to admire.

Nobility and authority

*Helene Train’s portrait of King Cetshwayo kaMpande – Oil on canvas.
This award-winning painting caught the eye because it immediately conveyed an impression of strength, nobility and authority.

*Paul Lavender’s Natal Midlands – watercolour
Typical rural scene of what appears to be a woman standing in front of a set of buildings. Immediately evoked nostalgia of scenes from the Midlands.

*Heather Gourlay Conyngham’s Homage – oil on canvas
This nude immediately grabbed the attention due to the technical proficiency and the gaze of the subject matter – a slim and wiry, yet strongly built man, with a slightly dishevelled appearance, who appears to be questioning, with strong, piercing eyes.

Now read: Sculpting a career in the arts

*Edgar Hunt, A Happy Family – oil on canvas
I loved this painting, for its colour and happy subject matter.

Messenger and cleaner at the Tatham Art Gallery, Doris Kunene, wrote a note accompanying the artwork. “I have chickens and I love them, therefore I chose this work. The painting really resembles what happens in nature. Some parts of the painting were lost and I like the fact that when the work was repaired, the happy family life was restored back with joy again.”

Cafe Tatham serves up a mean blueberry muffin, with real blueberries nogal!

*Sue Williamson – 3 artworks screen-printed on paper.

A series of 3 artworks portraying courageous South African women.

Williamson said she was inspired by the pictures seen in homes in Crossroads and Langa. “There were family photographs in home-made frames with bright borders of gift wrap, edged in strips of coloured paper cut with zig-zag scissors.”

She wrote: “My intention was to portray a number of courageous South Africans about whom, for some reason or other, very little was known by their countrymen.”

*Marlene Wasserman’s Ink on Plastic works also caught the eye.

Impressive scale

The SA Landscapes room was a good example of a selection that deserved a lot more time for the viewer to fully appreciate what was on show. The scale of the room is impressive.

I’ll just say for now that Mduduzi Xakaza’s Mist at Menyezwayo (oil on board) was a fave, as was Petros Ghebrehiwot’s Neighbourhood (oil on canvas).

Now-read: A pop-up art event in the Midlands

“Migrations – Time; Place; Culture” is another entirely interesting room full of works, where Siyabonga Sikosana’s Dambuza Clinic (oil on canvas) is a colourful, vibrant delight. Full of detail (even including a Witness newspaper poster at the local shop), it portrays a typical slice of semi-rural SA life.

Art lovers in the Midlands, Pietermaritzburg and nearby, there’s plenty to savour at the Tatham Gallery. It’s worth a trip into the city to go check it out.

Hours: Open Tuesday to Sunday, 9am-5pm;
Address: Chief Albert Luthuli (Commercial) Road, opposite City Hall;
Parking: Limited free public parking in front of building; secure paid for parking in vicinity;
Tel: 033 392 2801

PS: Well done to Cafe Tatham, which offered a blueberry muffin and coffee for a very reasonable R33. And the blueberry muffin had real blueberries in it. Impressed.


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  1. The Tatham is indeed a GEM in the middle of the city, and the staff are extremely hard-working and supportive of local schools, art teachers and artists. FOTAG (Friend of Tatham Art Gallery) are also a group of local ardent supporters who work tirelessly to raise funds and support the gallery in keeping up its fine collection and reputation. Well done to all & thank you for this article.

    • Thanks for the comment. Perhaps in future an article on Fotag, including all efforts to make this gallery an institution to be proud of in the city.

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