Walter Oltmann

Walter Oltmann is a quiet, gentle man. He has the calm of a happily cloistered monk, his serenity seemingly placing him above the messy concerns of the material world. Born in 1960 he went to school and completed his Fine Arts Degree in Kwa-Zulu Natal. His father worked as a civil servant and the family moved between one remote area of Kwa-Zulu Natal to the next. This migratory life style exposed Walter Oltmann to the rich craft tradition of rural KZN.

Oltmann recalls the rigorous training in drawing that university art students underwent at the time. Drawing skills were seen as a foundation to build the rest of one’s art making practice on.  His teachers “made it clear to us that drawing should be a regimen in one’s creative practice and also a way of thinking as an investigative activity”. The mastery of drawing skills has translated well into Oltmann's interpretation of the mastery of traditional craft skills that are to be found in South Africa.

Walter Oltmann’s work can be divided into two main areas of practice: drawing (pencil, ink and bleach) and sculpture (wirework). He is a master at manipulating both two-dimensional and three-dimensional line. A thread runs through the prints that he made at The Artists’ Press: “While I have dabbled with lithography, this is my first real adventuring into it. The thread of the pencil line moves into wire which moves into polymer plate and then is transferred onto paper”. “Mark helped me to find a way to translate the delicacy of lace and wire work into a suitable print media via letterpress. This was unexpected, a nice discovery!” The embossed quality of the letterpress printing gives an added tactile dimension to the work. The spirit of the wirework has translated well into print. The hand-made quality of the woven and knotted wire sculptures objectifies the aspect of time passing - the viewer grasps time as a tangible quality embodied in the material.  Walter is often asked:  “How long did it take to make that?” This aspect also carries over into the drawings and prints that Walter Oltmann makes.    

Child skulls and infant.

In 2007 Oltmann was invited to participate in an exhibition titled “Skin to Skin” (Kaunas Textile Biennale, curated by Fiona Kirkwood) under the sub section “skin and sexual relations”, addressing the rapid spread of HIV/AIDS in Southern Africa. The artwork he made for this exhibition was of a skeletal pregnant mother and her baby. It was woven in fine wire to resemble lacework that could be read as permeable ‘skin’, suggesting the insecure barrier between an HIV infected mother and her unborn. “I wanted to convey the qualities of intimacy and fragility that lace holds in rendering the figures in fine wire weaving. The human skeleton and skull are emotionally loaded images, and the skull of a child even more so. The iconography of mother and child is central to art history across many cultures and in the interpretation of this theme one usually expects sentiment. In these works I aim to counter the sentimental reading of a mother and child, hence the skeletons. “It is an “x-ray” line, the transparent fine wire weave has an x-ray quality to it and allows me to present the internal structures of a figure”.

In the four letterpress prints Oltmann depictes three child skulls and an image of a baby. The lacelike quality of the images recalls domestic doily and knitted craft work. The fragility of babies and small children is affectionately captured by Walter in these beautiful prints.

Oltmann respects and admires the mastery seen so often in items of African domestic craft work. Finely woven baskets, hand woven fabrics, wirework and the iconography associated with these objects are a source of inspiration. Here is a man who takes women’s work seriously!

Insects and hand bones.

Walter Oltmann is interested in the interface between humans and animals, notably insects. In recent works he has explored ways in which insect adaptations can combine with human features, for example in woven wire suits of armour reflecting the exo-skeletons of beetles. Insects evoke notions of threat (especially when encountered in swarms) but are also vulnerable in the face of humans.  They feature extraordinary sensory adaptations and undergo spectacular transformation through a process of metamorphosis. Oltmann references explorers’ books and the records of the first meetings between Africans and Europeans. He is fascinated by the written and visual observations that were made by each of the other and comments that “in a way, insects are our most extreme other”. The European obsession with taxonomy, collecting and ordering interests Walter, as does the nostalgia that we attach to explorers’ illustrations.

In the lithographs “Collected I & II” the relationship between humans and insects is explored. Human hand bones are carefully arranged among a collection of insects. The composition recalls the collections of entomologists or museum displays.  The image of the human hand as tool or as instrument of human contact has often featured in Oltmann’s work.  The print titled “Chafers” presents a collection of fruit chafers. Here Oltmann plays with the word “chafe” and its connotations of irritation, a lack of comfort and the potential of threat.

Artist's statement:

"I manipulate industrial materials in a way that contradicts their prefabricated nature by emphasising hand-made processes. Hence I use the linear qualities of these materials to create various forms and surfaces through techniques that parallel handcrafts. I have become deeply interested in the interchange between different cultures in southern Africa, and my sculptures and drawings often reflect and acknowledge the crafts of Africa”.

Walter Oltmann 2013


Latest editions from The Artists' Press

Artists listed by surname A to L

Artists listed by surname M to X

Title: Infant
Medium: Chine collé/letterpress
Paper size: 50 x 63cm
Image size: 29 x 42cm
Edition size: 30
Price: R 3 500 (excl. VAT)


Title: Child Skull I
Medium: Chine collé/letterpress
Paper size: 44 x 38cm
Image size: 42 x 29cm
Edition size: 30
Price: R 2 800 (excl. VAT)


Title: Child Skull II
Medium: Chine collé/letterpress
Paper size: 44 x 38cm
Image size: 42 x 29cm
Edition size: 30
Price: R 2 800 (excl. VAT)


Title: Child Skull III
Medium: Chine collé/letterpress
Paper size: 44 x 38cm
Image size: 42 x 29cm
Edition size: 30
Price: R 2 800 (excl. VAT)


Title: Collected I
Medium: Seven colour, chine collé lithograph
Paper size: 60 x 51cm
Image size: 44 x 38cm
Edition size: 25
Price: R 4 500 (excl. VAT)


Title: Collected II
Medium: Seven colour, chine collé lithograph
Paper size: 60 x 51cm
Image size: 44 x 38cm
Edition size: 25
Price:  R 4 500 (excl. VAT)


Title: Chafers
Medium: Single colour lithograph
Paper size: 58 x 77cm
Image size: 54 x 73cm
Edition size: 20
Price: R 3 000 (excl. VAT)


News from the studio where Walter Oltmann made these prints