Walter Oltmann (1960 – )

Artwork by Walter Oltmann

Walter Oltmann Stout Suit II LR

Stout Suit II

Walter Oltmann Stout Suit 1 LR

Stout Suit I


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.

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.

“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