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The Artist | Sekoto's Life

Gerard Sekoto is widely recognized as the pioneer of black South African Art. The artist was born in Botshabelo, a German Lutheran Mission Station near Middelburg in the Transvaal, to Andreas Sekoto - a Priest and School Teacher, and his wife, Anne Sekoto (née Serote), in 1913. The year was marked by the introduction of the ‘Natives Land Act’ –the first of the segregation legislations to be passed by the Parliament of South Africa. The series of measures taken by the government to exploit, alienate and degrade non-white South Africans that followed the Land Act drove Gerard Sekoto, and many other artists, musicians academics and activists, into self-imposed exile. Sekoto left in 1947 for Paris where he stayed until his death in 1993.

Sekoto’s childhood was spent on Wondehoek farm, where his father was a priest and a teacher in the local school. His earliest forays into art involved modeling of clay from the river bed and chalk drawing on slate used in the school. He was musically inclined from a young age, encouraged by various musical relatives of the family - namely a cousin who owned a harmonium and a portable organ.

Sekoto began his teacher’s training at the Botshabelo Training Institute in 1928. Here he discovered colour pencils. He was awarded first prize for designing a badge for the school blazer and was rewarded with a bible and five shillings.

In 1930 Sekoto transferred to Grace Dieu, an Anglican training college for black school teachers near Pietersburg (now Polokwane) where his artistic endeavors consisted of portraits of his fellow students. Upon graduating, Sekoto acquired his first teaching post in the Primary department of the Khaiso Secondary School.

At Khaiso, he started using watercolours and met the artist, Ernest Mancoba and also Nimrod Ndebele, Louis Makenna who became his closest friends and mentors. In 1936, Sekoto’s father passed away, news of which reached Sekoto too late for him to attend the funeral.

In 1938, he 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 achievement, coupled with the encouragement of his three friends, spurred Sekoto on to leave teaching and move to Sophiatown to pursue a career as a full-time artist. He lived with a cousin and spent his time observing daily life around him, painting what he saw on brown wrapping paper with poster colours. He was introduced to Brother Roger Castle who helped him gain recognition and develop his technique as an artist. He lived for six weeks at St Peter’s Secondary School who invited him to use the school premises as a studio and attend classes to stimulate the students artistically. Brother Roger introduced him to Joan Ginsberg of the Gainsborough Gallery as well as Judith Gluckman who taught Sekoto to use oil paints in her studio and Alexis Preller who gave him his first tubes of oil paint.

Sekoto’s reputation began to grow in Johannesburg following a group exhibition at the Gainsborough Gallery in 1939, where his work was included along with that of some of Brother Roger’s students. The same year marked the artist’s first inclusion in one of the annual exhibitions of the South African Art Academy. He participated in these exhibitions every year until he left for Paris. In 1940, the Johannesburg Art Gallery bought Sekoto’s painting, Yellow Houses - the first painting by a black artist to be acquired by the municipal gallery. Ironically, Sekoto had applied for a position as a floor cleaner at the gallery when he first arrived in Johannesburg and had been rejected on account of his being non-white.

In 1942, Sekoto moved to the outskirts of District Six in Cape Town where Brother Roger organized for him to rent a room with the Manuel family who lived opposite Roeland Street prison. He met with members of the ‘New Group’ - contemporary South African artists who worked and exhibited together, including Judith Gluckman and Alexis Preller as well as Lippy Lipschitz, Gregoire Boonzaier, Louis Maurice, Solly Disner and Walter Battiss. During this time, his work was exhibited in a number of galleries in Cape Town, namely the Argus Gallery, with the New Group, and at the Jerome Gallery, where he and Louis Maurice held a joint exhibition in 1944. Later in 1971 both artists exhibited together in Paris.

In 1945, Sekoto moved to Eastwood, Pretoria to live with his mother and stepfather, Paulus Jiyane. He arrived in time for the wedding of his brother, Bernard, to Mary Dikeledi.

In spite of the oppressive nature of life for a black artist living in South Africa, Sekoto managed to achieve a fair amount of recognition during his early years living in Sophiatown, District Six and Eastwood respectively. His paintings from this period evoke the vibrancy and energy of the cultural activity and tension of the townships and serve as historical records of a way of life as these areas were subsequently destroyed.

The Gainsborough Gallery continued to exhibit Sekoto’s work after the first exhibition in 1939, and after Sekoto had left for Paris, as did a number of other galleries around South Africa. The financial success of a solo exhibition held at the Gainsborough Gallery in 1947, coupled with that of another solo exhibition at The Christies Gallery in Pretoria the same year, enabled him to pay his way to exile. Both of these exhibitions were critically acclaimed in South Africa. By the time he left for Paris, 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.

Sekoto was recognized for his ability to capture the humanity and realism of everyday scenes, giving dignity to Black South Africans, without the distance that separated celebrated European artists at the time, from their subjects. It was this quality that moved his friend and fellow artist, John Koenakeefe Mohl to try to dissuade him from going into exile as he insisted that South Africa needed black artists “…who could paint our people, our life, our way of living, not speaking in the spirit of apartheid or submission”. However, it was the encouragement of other fellow artists, such as Lippy Lipshitz and Ernest Mancoba that ultimately persuaded Sekoto to move to Paris, which he saw as the ‘artistic fountain’ and ‘mecca’ of the art world. Paris represented artistic liberation for Sekoto – a place where he could work and succeed on the same terms as any other man, irrespective of the colour of his skin.

In September 1947, Sekoto left South Africa on the Carnarvon Castle, travelling first to London, where he spent three weeks in the company of fellow exiles, including the South African author of Mine Boy, Peter Abrahams and the Nigerian sculptor, Ben Enwonwu.

Sekoto faced a number of personal and professional trials when he first arrived in Paris, not the least of which was the fact that he spoke no French. He lived in a tiny apartment, played the piano in various bars and attended drawing classes during the day at the Académie de la Grande Chaumière. Although he achieved critical acclaim early on in Paris, from two solo exhibitions and a variety of group shows held at prestigious galleries, he struggled to sell many of his works. Famously, his painting, ‘Sixpence-a-door’ was singled out and admired by the Queen Mother at the opening of The Overseas Exhibition of South African Art at the Tate Gallery in 1948. The exhibition travelled from London to Belgium, France, Canada, USA and to the Netherlands between 1948 and 1950.

Sekoto’s first introduction to the Parisian gallery circuit came through a chance encounter in 1948 with Raymond de Cardonne and his wife, Else-Clausen who owned the Galerie Else-Clausen. The couple fortunately spoke English and upon seeing the artist’s work, consigned a number of pieces and so began an enduring, though tumultuous friendship. A solo exhibition of Sekoto’s work was held at the Galerie Else-Clausen in 1948, following closely on from the artist’s first solo exhibition in Paris at the French Colonial House which was opened by the Minister of the South African Legation in Paris, W.C. Parminter. Both exhibitions received favorable reviews but neither of them improved Sekoto’s dire financial circumstances through the sale of works.

He had a rich social life and mingled with writers, artists and academics from all over the world and living in Paris at the time - many of whom were exiles. His work as a musician in bars, the late nights and alcohol consumption led to a short spell in St Anne’s Asylum in 1949 after a period of psychological stress spurred on by an argument exacerbated by alcohol with Raymond De Cardonne. During this time, he made a series of sketches of his fellow patients of the hospital, which exhibit a deeply empathetic understanding of depression and an economical use of line in depicting humanity. Upon his release from St Anne’s, Sekoto became the tenant of Marthe Baillon (née Hennebert) with whom he later developed a relationship that lasted until her death 30 years later.

Sekoto’s mingling with fellow exiles inspired a keen interest in and involvement with various pan-African movements in Europe. In 1957, he contributed an article titled, A South African Artist, to the July/September issue of the literary and cultural journal, Présence Africaine. In 1959, was invited to attend and address the Second Conference of ‘Negro’ Writers and Artists organized by Présence Africaine in Rome, where he spoke on ‘Responsibility and Solidarity in African Culture”. His autobiography as well as his article, The Present Situation of a Non-White Artist in South Africa were published in Présence Africaine Journals in 1969 and 1971 respectively.

In spite of his initial struggles in exile, Sekoto’s reputation grew steadily and the following years saw him exhibiting fairly extensively both in Paris and further afield in Stockholm, Vichy, Venice, Nemours, Senegal, Denmark and around the USA. In South Africa he was not forgotten, where his work was exhibited in Pretoria, Johannesburg and Cape Town.

He returned to the African continent when he was invited by Leopold Senghor, President of Senegal and famed African poet, to travel to Senegal and exhibit at the ‘First Festival of Negro Arts’ in 1966. He travelled with his friend Tiberio Wilson, a Brazilian artist and the two stayed and worked in Dakar and the more remote village of Casamance until 1967 when Sekoto was called back to Paris by Marthe, who had fallen ill.

Marthe passed away in 1976 and Sekoto was left with very little security in his life on account of Marthe having not left a will. In 1984, he was officially evicted from the residence on the Rue de Grands Augustins, where he had lived with Marthe for almost thirty years. He became a ward of the French state and was moved to a room at the Résidence Les Pinsons – an old-age home in the small, provincial town of Corbeil, where he felt restricted by the rules and regulations. Sekoto was badly injured in an accident and was forced to spend the following three years in L’Hôpital Duypuytren in Dravail-Essone (near Corbeil). When he had finally recovered, after some difficulty negotiating his position as a South African artist living off the French state, Sekoto was moved to a comfortable old age home for artists in Nogent-sur-Marne, where he died in 1993.

Up until 1988, the artist’s legacy had largely been neglected. Towards the end of his life, Sekoto’s work gained recognition both in South Africa and abroad largely through the efforts of Barbara Lindop who produced three books encouraging the promotion of his work. She has continued her work after his death together 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 this forefather of South African Art.

By Chloë Reid