Maverick Life

Maverick Life

One heck of a good show: Gerard Sekoto’s 100th birthday party at the Wits Art Museum

Even for viewers who are well acquainted with Gerard Sekoto’s work and styles, the current exhibition at the Wits Art Museum will come as a revelation. Seeing his paintings arranged in rough chronological order, reflecting where he lived and worked at each point in his life provides compelling insight into Sekoto’s travails and his development as an artist. By J BROOKS SPECTOR.

This year, 2013, marks the centenary of the birth of South African artist Gerard Sekoto and an extraordinary exhibition of his life and work is now on show at the Wits Art Museum. Such were the circumstances of South Africa during his lifetime that the artist – back in the 1940s – had been advised to apply to work as a janitor (or pretend to be one) at the Johannesburg Art Gallery so he could actually enter the building to see Yellow House, one of his best works, after it had become that gallery’s first acquisition from a black painter.

Photo: Woman fingering her necklace, 1975.

In fact, when this writer first arrived in South Africa nearly 40 years ago, Yellow House was still the only work by an African artist on permanent display in that gallery. Now an astonishing collection of Sekoto’s works – along with a film on the artist and related documentary materials – are on display at the Wits Art Museum in a lustrous exhibition that runs until 2 June.

Sekoto eventually had the misfortune of a more politicised age to have his best work often denigrated by leading critics who diminished his stature by calling him a domestic painter – a man whose work lingered on the small details of everyday life. In fact, Sekoto himself had said, “What I wanted to catch was the life of the people and their expressions. Landscapes would be rare. Mostly it was the movement that attracted me. I liked movement and the landscape would be in the background.” (That often-expressed critical response to Sekoto some years ago would seem to beg the question as to whether such critics would also have labelled Jan Vermeer an artist who spent too much time documenting Dutch interior design concepts to be taken truly seriously as a great painter.)

Photo: Eastwood, 1950

Just as Sekoto was coming into his own as an artist, fully in command of his own style and craft, the indignities of South Africa’s increasingly segregated society drove him to seek opportunities outside South Africa, in post-war France. Sadly, this move severed his organic connection to South African life, rhythms and colour and disrupted his creative energy.

While his move to France freed up his personal life and gave him chances to move in very different, more integrated circles, it also increasingly became a soul wrenching experience for Sekoto. No longer firmly anchored in South African life, his life increasingly seemed to spin out of control – and his artistic work took on either a gauzy nostalgia for Africa or became a fraught effort to engage with and embrace the ideas in movements like abstract expressionism and cubism.

Photo: Husband and Wife

Jan Gerard Sekoto was born in Botshabelo, originally a German mission station in the Middelburg district of the Transvaal. Sekoto’s father was a leading member of the community of early Christian converts there, and Sekoto attended a school at Wonderhoek that had been established by his priest-teacher father. After studying at the Diocesan Training College near Pietersburg, along with writer Peter Abrahams and fellow artist Ernest Mancoba, Sekoto became a teacher.

By the late 1930s, Sekoto was winning prizes in national art competitions – organised specially for black artists. Encouraged by such success, like so many other ambitious creative black South Africans with big dreams, Sekoto moved to Sophiatown, the location where a number of his best-known works were painted. He quickly made connections with up-and-coming white artists like Alexis Preller and Judith Glukman and they were instrumental in helping him master oil painting techniques.

Photo: Looking Down the Hill, Sophiatown

Nonetheless, Sekoto grew increasingly unhappy with Johannesburg’s claustrophobic racial world, and in 1942 he moved on to Cape Town’s District Six, mixing with artists like Solly Disner, Louis Maurice, Lippy Lipschitz and Paul Kosten. Three years later, however, he moved to Pretoria’s black township of Eastwood. He had several successful exhibitions during that period and it was there that he began to plan his move abroad for new opportunities for artistic growth.

The Eastwood period between 1945 and 1947 are known as his “golden years”. Critics now agree that while he lived in Eastwood he effectively captured the poignant and transient moments of everyday township life, especially apparent in a magnificent, luminous series of family portraits.

Photo: Outside the Shop

His move to Paris in 1947 threw him into contact with art students and others from around the world. However, at a personal level, things became increasingly difficult and he frequently was virtually without funds. His art did not generate a sufficient income to live on, but fortuitously he found work as a musician instead.

Sekoto later described how, when he was walking near a club, together with a Jamaican photographer friend. Sekoto wrote, “I was in a good mood. We saw people going in and out, carrying guitars. I suggested we have a beer. We went inside and saw a young girl there and I wanted to know what was happening. She told me that there was an audition in progress and if I was a musician, why did I not take a try. I told her that I was a pianist…. She suggested I ask the patron for an audition. The patron was just in the area then and she told him that I played the piano. He suggested I play for him. I did. Remember, I was in a good mood. I do not know if I would have been able to have done it otherwise. I strummed and chanted and groaned and shouted.” Improvising quickly, he was offered a job and at the Jacob’s Ladder club he played jazz and sang “Negro Spirituals”, popular French songs of the period – and even the music of the increasingly popular calypso singer, Harry Belafonte.

Photo: Prayer in Church

A small but steady income through music generated just enough for a Spartan daily life and art school expenses – and some of his musical compositions eventually were published in France. During this time, too, his art was included in an exhibition in London’s Tate Gallery together with some 50 white South African artists, but exhibitions like that one, among others, failed to secure his reputation in the European art scene such that he could survive on his painting.

Still, he was able to secure additional exhibitions in Europe and even several back in South Africa (although he remained in Paris). Then in 1966 he visited Senegal for a year. During this period he seemed reenergised by his return to the continent even though the Apartheid government in South Africa revoked his passport at that time – thereby guaranteeing he would never return home. Then his personal life increasingly came apart when his long-time companion, Martha Baillon, died and Sekoto spent time in both a sanatorium and a hospital, following an accident. He died on 20 March 1993.

Photo: Street Scene

This current exhibition at the Wits Art Museum will come as a revelation, even for viewers who believe they are already well acquainted with Sekoto’s work and styles. Seeing the paintings grouped together in rough chronological order by where he lived and worked at each point in his life provides an easy way to grasp how the artist found increasing confidence in a growing range of colour palettes, tried and then conquered new painting techniques, and how he had experimented with new ways of dealing with perspective – as well as light and shadow.

With his Paris and Dakar periods in the upstairs gallery, separate from the earlier South African work, it is easy to see how the break with his homeland had shattered his way of working, forcing him to rely upon memory for creative glances backwards to South Africa – and how he tried to come to grips with cubism, abstract expressionism and other artistic ideas. One important exception to this later period of creative uncertainty are the Blue Heads portraits from the period between 1960-1965, works that seem to have been encouraged by news of Miriam Makeba’s electrifying appearances in New York.

Photo: The Proud Father – Olga on Bernard’s Knee

Seeing Sekoto’s work displayed in this way, one can also see how artistic movements like German expressionism, and the early works of artists like Vincent van Gogh, influenced his way of painting. The only real gap in this exhibition – presumably due to major cost and administrative difficulties – is the absence of works that could have provided comparisons with the works of other South African artists also active during Sekoto’s time in South Africa. This list could have included Irma Stern and Gregoire Boonzaier – but also Walter Battiss, Alexis Preller, John Mohl and Ernest Mancoba, individuals with whom Sekoto was sometimes associated at crucial points in his artistic development. An excellent catalogue for this exhibition curated by Mary-Jane Darroll and study and enrichment materials for young students enhance the educational value of this exhibition.

“At the conceptual core of this exhibition is the staging of Sekoto’s texts in relation to his paintings and sketches; his thoughts, ideas, ideals and conflicts offering a means of understanding the man behind the images. The complexity of his responses to his socio-political context in his private texts goes far beyond the seeming naivety of his early paintings, for example, shedding a quite particular light on his position in relation to what was happening in the country at the time,” says Darroll.

Photo: Vermeulen Street, Pretoria, 1946

In many ways, this long-overdue exhibition is also a tribute to the efforts of Barbara Lindop. Lindop, who has written several works on Sekoto, had earlier promoted a jazz band that played some of Sekoto’s compositions, and was a key force behind the establishment of the Gerard Sekoto Foundation. Other sponsors include the Bank of America/Merrill Lynch, Business and Arts South Africa, attorneys Webber Wentzel and the National Lotteries Distribution Trust Fund. BHP Billiton is the owner of Song of the Pick, one of Sekoto’s most well known paintings, and this painting of a crew of pick-and- shovel men working in visual rhythmic sync is a theme Sekoto returned to yet again in Paris, long after his original picture had been painted.

While the funding from sponsors was crucial in the preservation and restoration work on some of the most important works, similarly important has been the willingness of dozens of holders of Sekoto works – including many private owners – to allow them to be included in this exhibition. Given that such an exhibition will be extraordinarily difficult to pull together again because of the difficult, expensive insurance requirements and the varied lending conditions from the various owners, it is a great shame that – so far at least – the funds needed to support touring this extraordinary collection throughout this country, let alone abroad, have not been forthcoming from private or government sources. Go see it before the works in this exhibit are finally packed away and returned to the various owners all around the world. DM

Read more:

● Sekoto, Jan Gerard at the SA History website

● Gerard Sekoto, Artist, about from the Everard Read Gallery website

● Gerard Sekoto (South African, 1913-1993) at the Bonhams auction house website

● Gerard Sekoto’s ‘illustrious album’ at the Brand South Africa website

Main photo: Girl with Orange; Self-portrait, 1947; Portrait of a Cape Coloured School Teacher.


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