Cradle presents new works by Walter Oltmann comprising aluminium wire weavings, drawings, prints and watercolours. This body of work focuses on a series of human skulls, notably those of children and young adults, (photographed from the Raymond Dart Collection of human skeletons, School of Anatomical Sciences, Wits University) and selected photographic images of South African landscapes taken at rock engraving sites. The wide-open, rocky landscapes evoke a harsh geography and in relation to the images of the skulls they carry a sense of absence and immutability.
Presenting images of skulls in relation to landscapes under the title ‘Cradle’ inevitably reminds one of the “Cradle of Humankind,” a name given to the Sterkfontein area in Gauteng where fossil discoveries were made of early hominids. In his introduction to the book A Search for Origins, Science, History and South Africa’s ‘Cradle of Humankind’, Philip Bonner (2007) notes: “The Cradle […] provides a lens through which to view and comprehend a series of absolutely pivotal and formative moments of South African prehistory and history.” Adopting this idea of ‘cradle’ as a ‘lens through which to view’ histories, Oltmann presents wire woven landscape images in circular formats that allude to views seen through a telescope, underscoring the process of looking and examining. Being images of sites that carry evidence of human presence from a very long time ago, the landscapes also introduce the prism of time. Laboriously incised and pecked into rocks, we know very little about who the creators of these engravings were, why the images are there and what they are all about. Similarly, and more closely related to our own time period, the wire woven skulls of anonymous children reflect on the ‘formative moments’ of individuals who once lived here but about whom we have little or no knowledge. ‘Cradle’ presents a melancholic contemplation on these lives and the character of trauma that their histories assume.
Archeological images (such as skulls and skeletons) have featured in several of Oltmann’s recent works that have engaged with notions of geological time, change and evolution. In these works he draws on correlations between images of fossils and woven forms such as lace and crochet work. He is interested in archaeology in that it stems from a discipline that is concerned with what Simon Calley in Sculpture and Archaeology (2011) describes as “examining our relationship to time and our place to its continuity … It is an activity concerned with the present [and] with projecting ourselves into the past … Archaeology is ordered and structured to record and interpret evidence of past human activity, but it is driven by contemporary questions.”
Oltmann’s new works also invoke the memento mori and vanitas genre in European art: scenes where the skull reminds the viewer of the fragility of life. The skull is the last effigy of the living face and is an iconic reminder of the passing of time. The skull of a child is a particularly emotionally loaded image that hauntingly underscores tragic loss and innocence in the face of trauma and catastrophe. In their often broken and eroded states, the depicted child skulls further reflect this traumatic character. The sleeping child is another common image used by artists to depict the innocence and serenity associated with sleep, but it has also frequently been used to evoke death or to suggest death as a form of sleep. Since the nineteenth century, images of the sleeping child have frequently served as grave markers. The slumbering face with closed eyes evokes stillness and a sense of transition.
Oltmann’s wire artworks involve layering and stitching together hand-woven ‘doiley’ segments to create a form of three-dimensional tonal drawing in wire. The silvery-grey of the aluminium wire translates the tonalities that we associate with documentary black and white photographs and lends itself to the austerity of the images. In foregrounding a tension between the physicality of the wire weave as material and the illusion of depth created through the tonal layering, the works are encountered as image but also as fabricated surface. The illusion of the image is thus integrated with the ‘fabric’ of the work and at times it may also become somewhat concealed within the weave. The final works remain semi-transparent and gauze-like; the drawing becomes its own sculptural object or membrane. The hand-made quality of the woven and knotted wire emphasizes time and slows down the experience of looking. The resulting process leaves a trail of traces that make time evident so that the viewer grasps it as a tangible quality embodied in the material. The chosen imagery resonates with this recognition in evoking fragility and the passage of time.
Walter Oltmann was born in 1960 in Rustenburg, Gauteng, South Africa. He completed his BA (Fine Arts) at the University of Natal, Pietermaritzburg in 1981 and his MA (Fine Arts) from the University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, in 1985. He is currently working part-time as Associate Professor in the Wits School of Arts and is in the process of completing a creative PhD titled In The Weave: Textile-based Modes of Making and the Vocabulary of Handcraft in Selected Contemporary Artworks from South Africa.