Life, etc

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

By J Brooks Spector 2 May 2013

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.