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Song for Sekoto Gerald Sekoto 1913-2013 by…
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Song for Sekoto Gerald Sekoto 1913-2013

by Beth Housdon

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Review of Song for Sekoto 1913 – 2013.

2013 marks the centenary of the birth of the South African artist , Gerard Sekoto and the 1913 seminal Native Land Act. Sekoto is a famous son of South Africa who has become far better known in recent years than during his life time.

Sekoto left South Africa and settled in Paris in 1947 and due to circumstances, political imperatives and personal choices never returned. His life in South Africa spanned the first 34 years of his experience as he moved between his birthplace on a mission station at Botshabello to an independent life in Johannesburg (he lived in Sophiatown for four years), District Six in Cape Town and Eastwood, Pretoria before taking the momentous decision to explore the idyllic artist’s life in France.

He grew up in a fairly isolated mission world and became a teacher. He was unusual in that he decided to become a full time artist in the late 1930s in South Africa (in his mid twenties) and that he was mobile and free of family commitments to be able to move about the country. He lived in a world of racial segregation but in his encounters with fellow artists crossed the often impermeable race and class barriers. He exhibited his work in Johannesburg with some success . The remarkable achievement was the purchase of his painting “Yellow Houses” by the Johannesburg Art Gallery, Joubert Park, as it was the first painting by a black artist to be acquired by the city gallery. This work is still owned by the City of Johannesburg . Ironically, Sekoto had tried to get a job as a cleaner in the gallery in when he came to Johannesburg but had been rejected because he was not white, at a time when jobs in state institutions were invariably reserved for poor whites as a policy to counteract the consequences of the depression.

Sekoto’s self portrait , (1947) oil on a canvas board, delights with that expression of the anticipation of new life to come, hope and curiosity. The sideways look of the eyes, the handsome nose, the serious lips ringed by a moustache and the slight receding hairline show a serious face taking on the world on its terms.

Post war French living proved to be a disappointment in many ways, particularly in the first few years, yet Sekoto doggedly made a new life as a South African abroad; he faced poverty, colour prejudice, state bureaucracy and a lack of recognition of his work when it would have mattered to his comforts. He was resourceful and was forced to make a living as a nightclub musician, but payment could partly be in drink. Gerard fell prey to alcoholism and was incarcerated in a metal home St Anne’s in Paris for some time (check dates). Yet it was also a story of redemption and the triumph of the human spirit for through all the vicissitudes of a life of struggle and exile. Sekoto learnt French and was blessed by a stable relationship over 30 years with Marthe Baillon ( nee Hennebert, a beauty in her youth and lover and muse of Rainer Maria Rilke) ; he loved and was loved , he learnt to cook French cuisine; he reflected on life and his experiences, he wrote letters and poetry. He made music. Through it all Sekoto painted the most vivid, heart reaching, appealing pictures, over 3000 of them in different media ( oils, pencils, a ball point pen, watercolors, gouaches, ) materials ( paper, boards, canvas) and expressing different styles and moods. He died in Paris is 1993 and is buried there.

Sekoto’s best art was rooted in his homeland and he portrayed people, domestic life and street scenes with an intimacy , simplicity, joy and sometimes nostalgia. Often pictures have a documentary feel – they capture a transient moment of life or an event. The poignancy in the case of the Sophiatown paintings was in the fact that within a decade of his departure, Sophiatown was demolished and destroyed by the apartheid state and its people and community forcibly moved to new peripheral townships. Sekoto captured life as it was in South Africa when he lived here in the 1930s and 40s, but in doing so there was covert political commentary . His painting “ Dawn”, ( 1943-44) an oil on canvas of the female African form with the dawn light her back and that gaze to the distance is accompanied by the words “ freedom will come one day”. The 1946 “ Song of the Pick” has become an iconic image ( it is the signature image of both the catalogue on the front cover and the exhibition) with its rhythmic sensuous movement of black men and implements, the effort of gang physical labour contrasted with the languid yellow clad pipe smoking, hands- in- the- pocket white overseer. It is a defining image.

Later, from afar in Paris, when he reacted to the Sharpeville massacre (1960) or the Homage to Steve Biko (1978) the political message is clear and overt but perhaps not as powerful as the earlier paintings and one asks why. Often the colours in his paintings are bright greens, red, blues, yellow . sometimes there is a sombre undertone but the lyricism always touches one.. He used light to give you, the viewer, an insight into his understanding of the moment and the dynamics between people . His Four Figures at a table c 1941-2, immediately took me back to a Cezanne I had seen in the city gallery in Mannheim.

Sekoto spent a year in Senegal in 1966 and his work in his blue period was enriched by that sojourn, new encounters and the thrill of a return to the African continent. He produced many inspired and inspiring works in that period.

Some recognition came late in his life and he was rediscovered in the 1980s with some remarkable people, such Barbara Lindop, Abdou Berrada, Lorna de Smidt and Chabani Manganyi , A monograph was compiled by Barbara Lindop in 1988 . The first retrospective Gerard Sekoto exhibition was held at the Johannesburg Art Gallery in 1989. In France, also in 1989 he was awarded the Chevalier des Arts et des Lettres.

The University of the Witwatersrand awarded him an Honorary doctorate in1989 ( he declined to return to accept the honour on grounds of poor health ( his public excuse) but more privately railed against not being able to return while there was no liberation and at that he was at one with the then academic boycott ( which many of us at Wits fought while supporting the anti- apartheid protests). Eventually it was agreed that he should accept the degree (and so he did) in absentia. In 1990 Sekoto met Nelson Mandela.

This book marks the 100th anniversary and an extraordinary retrospective exhibition. It is a catalogue but in the quality of the illustrations of the Sekoto works, the series of essays, snippets and memories by people who knew him or met him , a serious essay or two by an art historians , many photographs, the many memories of meetings , the careful chronology, the photographs of the archives make this more than an exhibition catalogue. There is a comprehensive bibliography. There is an addendum of additional art works. There is no index and the positioning of the name of the author of an essay at the end of the contribution and in a not very prominent manner makes it difficult to sort out whose words you are reading. A certain uneven quality pervades the compilation of many different contributions – because they do different things. Tighter editing of the text would have improved the book. The most valuable, serious (and longest) essay is by Mzuzile Mduduzi Xakaza , a new voice in Sekoto studies ( “Who Occupies the Centre”) is thoughtful, well researched and a worthy read. The illustrations cannot be faulted

Merrill Lynch a, subsidiary of the Bank of America Corporation is the lead sponsor of the exhibition and BHP Billiton as a second sponsor. In the sense that the book and the exhibition , is an important and very significant partnership of the Sekoto Foundation, the Wits Art Museum ( the host gallery), the 55 collectors, museums, and corporate backers there is very little in the way of critical commentary or art historical analysis. This is a celebration of the life and work of Sekoto and I , as a visitor to the exhibition and now being privileged to take school groups on tours of the exhibition, feel honoured and enriched to be part of this celebration.

What then is the link between Sekota’s birth and death dates and the 1913 Land Act? Simply answered Sekoto was born in the year in which the most far reaching piece of legislation was passed by the new Union government – an act which dispossessed black people of ownership of most of the land of their patrimony and birth. It was the impetus for the existence and spread of the movement that became the African National Congress (created in 1912 as the South African Native National Congress ). The ANC became the oldest of all 20th century liberation bodies. Eventually it triumphed and in 1994 the first democratic elections were held which brought the ANC to power. Sekoto’s long life spanned the struggle years both inside and outside South Africa; he had his passport withdrawn. He felt could not return to South Africa before freedom and he had expressed that prospect of new society as early as the 1940s. His nostalgia, his longing , his homesickness were palpable. Many aspects of his story are heartbreaking and more so because there is a visual and written testimony in his letters, his poems , his music and his art. He died in 1993, an old man sick and in exile. Sekoto missed a homecoming to the new South Africa but his art gave inspiration to the rainbow nation. It is his legacy and his life that we celebrate today through this exhibition and this fine catalogue publication.

The work is published by the Gerard Sekoto Foundation and the Wits Art Museum. I you wish to explore the works of Sekoto on the web feed in his name on the google search engine and you will be rewarded with his lovely pictures. A CD of his music also accompanies the exhibition as well as a delightful illustrated children’s book. ( )
  Africansky1 | May 9, 2013 |
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