South African Art History – Gerard Sekoto
9 December 1913 – 20 March 1993
The Life and Art of Gerard Sekoto
Gerard Sekoto was a South African artist and a musician. He is recognised as the pioneer of urban black art and social realism. His work has been exhibited in Paris, Stockholm, Venice, Washington, and Senegal, as well as in South Africa.
Let’s just take a quick look at the Zeitgeist – the time that Gerard lived. We see that he was born just before World War 1, lived through the great depression, World War 2, Segregation, Apartheid, the fall of Apartheid and died a year before Nelson Mandela becomes President in South Africa. That is a long, long life with a lot of major events. Let’s take a closer look at his story.
Gerard Sekoto was born in 1913 in a small German Lutheran Mission Station just outside the Transvaal, his Father was a priest and the school teacher. Sekoto’s childhood was spent on Wondehoek farm. Sekoto was drawn to art from the start even though he had little resources and no art supplies. He often modelled clay from the river bed to practice sculpture.
To practice drawing, he used a slate. Most of you won’t know what a slate is. Way back your grandparents didn’t use books, pencils and fancy pens in school. Each child had a little blackboard called a slate with a piece of chalk to work on. So you could practice writing and your sums, erase it and do it again and again on this little black board. Sekoto used this little slate to practice his drawing skills. So he couldn’t keep his drawings, he had to draw something and erase it if he wanted to do a new drawing.
Sekoto’s other passion was music, he was encouraged by various musical relatives in the family, his cousin owned a harmonium and a portable organ, and Sekoto loved playing this.
In 1928 Sekoto’s father really wanted him to become a teacher, so he decided to go and do teachers training at the Botshabelo Training Institute. Here he discovered coloured pencils for the first time in his life.
He was awarded first prize for designing a badge for his school’s blazer and was rewarded with a bible and five shillings. This was the first time that Sekoto learned that art could make him money.
As a little boy Sekoto would dream of one day being an artist in Paris, moving to the capital of art where all the famous artists lived, and he would long to one day visit Paris.
In 1930 Sekoto continued to study to be a teacher, and he would secretly practice his art, and he would not really want to show anybody his paintings. In his free time he would be consistently doing portraits of his fellow students. Sekoto finished his studies and became a teacher, and at his first secondary school that hew worked, he met other artists. They introduced Sekoto to the art of watercolours.
In 1938, Sekoto won second prize for a painting submitted to the May Esther Bedford Art Competition, organized by Fort Hare University College. George Pemba claimed first prize.
This amazing achievement spurred Sekoto on, and he wanted to be a full-time artist, he no longer wanted to be a teacher. So he moved to Sophiatown to become a full-time artist. He sat on the street corners of the township painting the daily life and scenes from people passing by. Not having proper art supplies he decided to paint on brown wrapping paper using cheap poster paint.
A close by school invited Sekoto to use their premises as a studio, he was also allowed to attend classes for 6 weeks to stimulate the students artistically. There, he met various new artist friends, one of them, Judith Gluckman who taught Sekoto to use oil paints in her studio and Alexis Preller who gave him his first set of oil paints.
Sekoto was now nearly 25 years old, and for the first time in his life, he had proper art supplies. People started to notice Sekoto’s amazing art talent, his reputation began to grow in Johannesburg following a group exhibition at the Gainsborough Gallery in 1939.
That same year Sekoto was invited to exhibit with the South African Art Academy in an annual exhibition, and he participated in these exhibitions every single year. Now, just a little reminder, this is in the time of segregation in Apartheid, where black and white people were not supposed to mix. Now something quite remarkable happened, in 1940, a government owned gallery purchased one of Sekoto’s paintings, it was called Yellow Houses, and it was the first painting bought from a black artist by a municipal gallery.
Now this is kind of funny right, where they say life is stranger than fiction, because when Sekoto first arrived in Johannesburg he applied to be a cleaner at this gallery, an they said “no! You can’t work here because you’re black”, but now they wanted to buy his art.
In 1942, Sekoto decided to leave Johannesburg, and moved to Capetown. Segregation rules were starting to form more and more in South Africa leading up to Apartheid. District Six was this funky, vibey, interracial, mixed area just outside the city centre where people could live together. District Six was known for its music and artists, and Sekoto joined a group called The New Group which predominantly consisted of white artists.
During this time, Sekoto worked really hard, and his work was exhibited in a number of galleries in Cape Town, namely the Argus Gallery and at the Jerome Gallery. In spite of the oppressive nature of life for black artists living in South Africa, Sekoto managed to achieve a fair amount of recognition. Sekoto was recognised for his ability to capture the humanity and realism of everyday scened, giving dignity to black South Africans.
Now, I don’t know if you guys know, but especially with District Six a lot of these areas were destroyed by the Apartheid government where they just came in with bulldozers and told everybody to get out, they didn’t want different races to live together. Because areas like District Six were destroyed Sekoto’s paintings are even more important today because it gives us a glimpse of what life was like back then in these areas.
In 1945, Sekoto moved once again, this time to Eastwood in Pretoria. This period in Sekoto’s life is known as the golden years, and is regarded as the time in which he made his best art. Think of the different periods and phases in Picasso’s life, where we have the blue period, the red period, well this is Sekoto’s golden period.
Sekoto gained quite a lot of success: he had a solo exhibition at the Gainsborough Gallery in 1947 and another exhibition The Christies Gallery in Pretoria, and he would save all his money, and just keep on saving, because he wanted to get to Paris.
One of his friends from The New Group Lippy said to him “oh Sekoto you should so go to Paris, it is the mecca of art, that is where you were meant to be”, but some of his other friends really didn’t want to go, they were telling him “who could paint our people, our life, our way of living, not speaking in the spirit of apartheid or submission” – John Koenakeefe Mohl. But Sekoto never forgot his childhood dream, so he saved enough money and off he went into exile, on a ship to Paris.
In 1947 Gerard Sekoto finally arrived in Paris! He made his childhood dream come true. But have you guys ever wanted something so badly, that once you get it, it’s kind of not that great, it kind of sucks.
The first problem was, he spoke no French, he couldn’t understand anybody; the second problem was, living in Paris was really expensive so he had this crumby, tiny, tiny flat. To make money he went to play piano at bars at night, and in the day he would attend drawing lessons in Paris.
Although people loved looking at his art and going to his exhibitions in Paris nobody really bought the paintings. So, he really started to struggle financially, and run out of money quite quickly.
Sekoto was part of a group exhibition at the Tate Gallery in 1948, and something amazing happened, the Queen Mother singled out his one painting, walking up to it saying “this is simply remarkable”, the painting was called Sixpence-a-door, she turned it around and she signed it. This exhibition started travelling from London to Belgium, France, Canada, USA and to the Netherlands. Finally Sekoto’s luck was starting to change a little bit, he met gallery owners that could speak English and they formed a friendship and they decided to start marketing Sekoto’s art to the French community and help him make money. They started exhibiting all across Europe, building Sekoto’s international fame, however, their relationship turned a bit sour and they started fighting about money.
At this time Sekoto had a rich social life and he loved and enjoyed playing music at bars, and he started doing this more and more to get more money, and he started drinking, he got completely depressed and became an alcoholic. One night Sekoto became very drunk and had a massive fight with his friend Raymond de Cardonne. It was so bad, that Sekoto was admitted to the St Anne’s asylum.
After he got out of the hospital he was looking for a new place to stay, and he found an apartment next to the house of a widower, her name was Marthe Baillion and she became the love of Sekoto’s life. Now this relationship would not have been allowed in South Africa at the time because they were an interracial couple. They loved each other very much and Sekoto moved in with her into her house.
Sekoto’s international fame started building and he exhibited in Paris, Stockholm, Vichy, Venice, Senegal, Denmark, and around the USA. Back in South Africa, galleries were still exhibiting Sekoto’s artworks. The president of Senegal in Africa invited Sekoto to come and exhibit as a part of the ‘First Festival of Negro Arts’ in 1966.
Then, Sekoto got an urgent call, he needed to come home, the love of his life Marthe was sick, they’ve been together for over 30 years. Unfortunately, Marthe didn’t make it and she passed away. Sekoto was heartbroken, but another big problem was that Marthe never left a Will, the French government said to Sekoto “move out of this house, you don’t belong here, you guys were never married, you can’t stay here!”. Sekoto became a ward of the French state and moved to a tiny, terrible old age home, with lots of rules, and he wasn’t allowed to paint.
Back in South Africa, Sekoto has really established a name for himself and Wits University rewarded him with an honorary Doctorate in Art. This helped Sekoto to establish his position in France, and they moved him to a much nicer retirement home, he had a lot more space, friends, and he was allowed to paint and create again.
At the age of 79 Sekoto died in France in 1993. Towards the end of his life Sekoto’s work gained recognition both in South Africa and abroad, largely through the efforts of Barbara Lindop whose three books encouraging the promotion of Sekoto’s work. She continued her work after his death with the trustees of the Gerard Sekoto foundation which was established in accordance with his will to develop awareness and understanding of the legacy of his forefathers in South African art.
And that’s the story of South African artist Gerard Sekoto!
Now, let’s look at the What, Where, How, and Why of his artworks.
Characteristics of Sekoto’s Artwork
The WHAT: Subject matter:
His subject matter was essentially South African and rooted in his daily experiences of Township life. The scene of everyday township life offered Sekoto an endless variety of subject matter. The street scenes included seemingly unimportant events such as women gossiping, or doing the washing, workers commuting, beer halls, children playing outside. His version of what he saw was not a copy of reality but instead his personal view. Although the effects of the political situation in South Africa can be seen in his artworks he did not deliberately create political works. Sekoto enjoyed living in the townships and stated “living in Sophia town has not troubled me in the least, on the contrary, the vitality of the area was a great stimulus.” It was wonderful seeing all these different people.“
The places that shaped his work was Johannesburg: Sophia Town, Cape Town’s District Six and Pretoria’s Eastwood. Later on in his life Sekoto would create African scenes from Paris.
The HOW: Painting Style
What was Sekoto’s painting style? Sekoto loved using strong shapes and forms and depicted his figures broad and with solidity. The result of this is that his figures are awkwardly described and not really in proportion, but shows a naivety that reflects his unpretentious attitude in his painting. Skoeto often used patterns in his artworks by repeating shapes. His brushstrokes were often blurred, and gave shapes soft edges similar to the effects of out of focus photography. In his composition, he used perspective in quite a weird way, distorting environments and this was due to a lack of training but does give depth to the artwork. Sekoto was mainly concerned with colour and light and used bold expressionistic colours. His use of colours is not true to life. The use of blatantly contrasting primary colours and secondary colours is a striking feature in his artwork. The non-realistic colour, strong patterns and not entirely realistic drawings and spatial relationships link him to modern movements. In some of his pieces we can see strong influences by Picasso and Van Gogh.
The WHY: the purpose of the artwork.
What was the purpose of Sekoto’s artwork? Today he is recognised as the pioneer of urban black art movement and social realism. One way that Sekoto has impacted South Africa is through the social perspective provided through his artworks. One author states, ”It is important to note that these pioneer artists gave prominence to the sociological circumstances of the urban black and that they were indeed one of the first artists to introduce the human situation into South African art from this perspective”.
His Most Famous Work
I would like to take a moment to discuss probably Gerard Sekoto’s most famous artwork: The Song of the Pick.
Let’s first look at the composition, we see this strong diagonal line giving it a diagonal composition. We see an A-symmetrical balance where we’ve got this large group on the left and a small figure on the right. We can see that at the top for the first three figures, the picks are cut off, putting the viewer right in the action.
Now, Sekoto didn’t just create this painting purposelessly, he worked off a photograph that he carried with him for the rest of his life, it was a small black and white photograph but he really changed the composition and the layout so that it could have a bigger impact.
He was constantly planning and doing sketches before he finally committed to this strong, solid composition. He created a powerful contrast between the nine labourers on the left and the small over-looker.
He uses pattern to show the rhythmic labour of the powerful black workers contrast to the white overseer. This rhythm is achieved by the repetitive right legs and arms. By cutting off the first three picks, our focus moves to their strong powerful bodies and the muscles in their arms.
Even though the workers have the same stance, we do see small aspects of individuality where we have varieties in the shapes of the headgear and the colours of the shirts and the pants. In contrast to them the warden is looking at them with his hands in his pockets and a pipe in his mouth. He is wearing light coloured clothing that shows he is not working and he is not getting his hands dirty. Compared to the labourers he looks small and pathetic, even though he depicts an air of authority.
Predominantly primary colours are used to really grab the viewers attention, although it cannot be heard, the title of the work evokes the sound of a song related to the sound of picks in the earth.
Now, why is this his most famous artwork? I believe it because it captures the Zeitgeist – the spirit if the times. This painting serves as a small summary of Apartheid South Africa. It shows the inequality of Apartheid, the unfairness, the difference between ‘the Baas and the Boy’. It also shows Apartheid’s economic design where Whites used cheap black labour to work in mines and unearth South Africa’s wealth for themselves. However, it also instills a message of hope. Showing the black mass is stronger than the small white oppressors. Encouraging the mass to rise up and stop the oppression.
I hope that this story about Gerard Sekoto inspired you in how you can make your dreams a reality by pursuing your passion. I also want you to be grateful for whatever art supplies you have, and if you don’t, be inspired to use whatever is available around you. We need to study and understand Sekoto and realise Gerard Sekoto had a considerable following of art collectors in South Africa and was a familiar name in the media and in art circles – an astonishing and unusual achievement for a black artist at the time in South Africa.