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OLTMANN BY VERSTER (article first published : 2001-11-18)

The Standard Bank Young Artist 2001: Walter Oltmann exhibition is on show at the Durban Art Gallery until January 3, 2002. It is an exhibition that will appeal to one and all – from artists and craftspeople to the general handyman or those who knit, crochet or weave. This is what well-known Durban-based artist Andrew Verster had to say about it at the opening of the exhibition:

“It is impossible to look at anything that Walter Oltmann has made and not feel a happier person. Something just feels right. It’s the feeling you get when you read poetry and the words echo thoughts you have already had but could never express.

This artist takes extraordinary things, things we know and he changes them by weaving them in wire much bigger than they are. And so they become totally fresh. Suddenly our tired eyes look at the things in our homes and they each become pregnant with possibilities. Each vase, brush, comb, insect, flower, chair, kettle, sofa ... the house itself. the garden. The dog. The car. There is no object too ordinary, no thing too humble, no idea too cliched, that could not be used. All it needs is his eye to see it differently.

This is his genius, the transformation of the commonplace so that the mundane becomes poetic. To see the possibility of beauty in unbeautiful things, that is genius. To find inspiration in the humdrum, that is clever.

To have an eye that sees beauty where others don’t, that is a gift.

A few years ago people watched in wonder as Walter’s soft python, many times bigger than any python has ever been, held limply between two giant hands, was carried through the streets of Durban from the storeroom where it had been living to the DAG where it went on display. A posse of council employees cleared a path ahead, a few formed a circle around to protect it from inquisitive hands, whilst a handful of others followed, answering questions and forming a vanguard. It showed how people were intrigued by this wonderful object. There was a carnival atmosphere. People who never normally go into a gallery loved this piece of art!

The technique that Walter has chosen belongs to that great family of basket-making, thatching, weaving in all its forms from fabrics to tapestry to carpets, beadwork and traditional building methods of walls and fences, as well as the structures of the natural world from beavers making dams to birds building nests.

In the debate that goes on and on about the fine arts and the crafts, Walter neatly straddles both worlds, and so heals the rift. Craft in his hands becomes art. Art embraces the techniques of the craftsperson, the two become one. It is a message that is particularly pertinent to us here in Africa. It is difficult to imagine him coming to the conclusion he has in, say, Europe or America. But here in Africa, what he does feels right for the time and the place, for our history and where we have been - for the future and where we are heading.

There is a sense about his art which seems inevitable. “ Andrew Verster




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