Gerard Sekoto

(1913 - 1993)

About

“I am glad that people owning my works are communicating in spirit. That makes me feel happy and puts up lights into the dubious sides of my life, to know there are people spiritually communicating in many places upon earth.” Gerard Sekoto.

On 9 December in Botshabelo near Middleburg in what is now Mpumalanga, Gerard Sekoto was born on a Lutheran mission station where his father was a missionary and was training to be a teacher. Many members of Sekoto’s family from both his mother’s and father’s side lived on the mission and were all very musical and were mainly all teachers by trade. Sekoto himself trained initially as a teacher but established himself as a painter in the 1940s and is now considered a pioneer of modernism in Africa. 

As a first generation black South African artist, Sekoto began as a child by making small animals out of clay in his rural home. He also began to use his older brother’s school slate to draw on, which progressed to paper and pencil to accommodate his more complex sketches where his natural artistic talent emerged. Sekoto quickly developed an interest in depicting people and local life that he saw around him, his drawings beginning as pure observations.

The period Sekoto painted in was a time of black segregation from white people. Sekoto illustrated township life and black culture in his artworks, which initiated the prominent township art genre recognizable in South African art. He later lived in Sophiatown, areas of which were later bulldozed by the Apartheid government. He created vibrant and compelling works that implies the energetic activity of life in as well as the conflict of the townships. In 1942 Sekoto moved to District Six in Cape Town and joined the ‘New Group’ in Cape Town, exhibiting around South Africa. Sekoto held his first solo exhibition in 1939 and 1940, from which the Johannesburg Art Gallery bought one of his works. This was the first picture by a black artist to enter a museum collection in South Africa.  

In 1947 Sekoto, in self-imposed exile, left South Africa for Paris. He was never to return to his home. France inspired Sekoto in new ways allowed him to explored fresh subjects. The first years in Paris were difficult, Sekoto worked as a pianist at l’Echelle de Jacob, a trendy nightclub playing jazz to finance his living and art school expenses. Sekoto still painted primarily South African subjects in a European style, such as Impressionism, Cubism, and Orphism. Some think that he continued to paint scenes of South African life because he wanted to keep his own identity and to fortify his roots.

Sekoto held his first solo show in Paris in 1949 at Galérie Else-Claussen. It was not particularly successful, but after an article on him appeared in Time Magazine in October 1949, Sekoto’s situation improved. His paintings became political in nature during the 1970s as a reaction to Apartheid in his home country. In 1989 the Johannesburg Art Gallery honoured him with a retrospective exhibition and the University of Witwatersrand awarded Sekoto with an honorary doctorate.

Sekoto was a cultural observer and analyst and his contribution to historical art has been considerable. In 1990 the French Government awarded him one of the highest national cultural honours in France, the award of Chevalier of the Order of Arts and Letters. In 2003, after he had died, Sekoto was bestowed the Order of Ikhamanga in gold by President Mbeki for distinction in the arts and his role in the liberation struggle, demonstrating his importance as a figure and as an artist both in South African and globally.

  • Chronology

    1913

    Born 9 December at Botshabelo near Middelburg, Transvaal

    1930

    Attended the Diocesan College near Pietersburg

    1934

    Taught at the Khaiso Secondary School near Pietersburg

    Won 2ndPrize in an art competition

    1938

    Went to Sophiatown, Johannesburg

    1942

    Moved to District Six, Cape Town

    Joined the new Group

    1945

    Moved to Eastwood, Pretoria

    1947

    Self-imposed Exile to Paris

    1947-48

    Attended drawing classes at de la Grande Chaumière. Played the piano in bars at night

    1949

    Articles on Sekoto appeared inTimemagazine (8 August 1949, October 1949)

    Spent two months in St. Anne’s Asylum

    1957

    Contributed article for Présence Africaine June/September 1957 (Nos 14-15 pp 281-9)

    1958

    His poster chosen for Second Congress of Negro Writers and Artists in Rome

    1968

    Dimplome Officiel at XIX Prix International de Peinture de Deauville

    1983

    Car accident: remained at I’Hôpital Duypuytren until the end of 1986

    1987

    Moved to La Maison Internationale des Artistes, Nogent-sur-Marne, France

    1989

    Honorary Doctorate awarded by the University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg

    1993

    Died at Nogent-sur-Marne, France

  • Exhibitions

    1939

    First Exhibition at the South African Academy of Art, Selborne Hall, Johannesburg

    Gainsborough Gallery, Johannesburg

    First Solo Exhibition, Marlborough Gallery, Johannesburg

    1940

    South African Academy of Art, Selborne Hall, Johannesburg

    Gainsborough Gallery, Johannesburg

    1941

    South African Academy of Art, Selborne Hall, Johannesburg

    1942

    South African Academy of Art, Duncan Hall, Johannesburg

    1943

    Gainsborough Gallery, Johannesburg

    Jerome Gallery, Cape Town

    Salisbury

    1944

    Argus Gallery, Cape Town

    Gainsborough Gallery, Johannesburg

    1945

    Joint exhibition with sculptor Louis Maurice, Jerome Gallery, Cape Town

    1946

    Gainsborough Gallery, Johannesburg

    1947

    Gainsborough Gallery, Johannesburg

    Christie’s, Pretoria

    Vincent Gallery, Pretoria

    1948

    Exhibition at the French Colonial House, Paris

    Gainsborough Gallery, Johannesburg

    1948-50

    Exhibited at the South African Art Exhibition, Tate Gallery, London, Netherlands, Belgium, France, Canada, United States of America, South African National Gallery and in Paris

    1949

    Galérie Else-Clausen, Paris

    1950

    Vincent Gallery, Pretoria

    1951

    Ralambshof Gallery, Stockholm

    1952

    Participated in the Van Riebeeck Tercentenary Exhibition, Cape Town

    1953

    Galerie Saint Placide, Paris

    Bulawayo, Rhodesia (Zimbabwe)

    1954

    I.D. Booksellers Gallery, Cape Town

    1955

    Petit Palais, Paris

    Lawrence Adler Gallery, Johannesburg

    Seventh Art Festival, University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg

    Galerie Reflets de Paris, Vichy

    1956

    Galerie Art Premier, Paris

    1958

    Lawrence Adler Gallery, Johannesburg

    1959

    Lawrence Adler Gallery, Johannesburg

    1960

    Salon d’Automne, Paris

    Lawrence Adler Gallery, Johannesburg

    1961

    Galleria Santo Stefano, Venice, Italy

    Adler Fielding Gallery, Johannesburg

    1962

    Salon d’Automne, Paris

    Group exhibition with Louis Maqhubela and Lucas Sithole, Adler Fielding Gallery, Johannesburg

    1963

    Durban Art Gallery

    Adler Fielding Gallery, Johannesburg

    1964

    Nemours, France

    Adler Fielding Gallery, Johannesburg

    1965

    African Painters and Sculptors from Johannesburg, Piccadilly Gallery, London

    Adler Fielding Gallery, Johannesburg

    1966

    First International Festival of Negro Arts

    Republic Festival Exhibition, Pretoria

    Adler Fielding Gallery, Johannesburg

    1967

    Theatre Daniel Sorano, Dakar (Exhibition with Wilson Tiberio)

    1968

    South African Association of the Arts, Pretoria

    Senegalese Embassy, Paris

    Galérie Marthe Nochy, Paris

    1969

    Christiane Colin Galerie, Paris

    1970

    Galleri BB, Denmark

    Gallery Randers, Stockholm

    1973

    Gallerie du Marais, Bourges, Paris (Exhibition with Wilson Tiberio)

    Pretoria Art Museum

    1975

    Atlantic Gallery, Cape Town

    1978

    Galerie Art Premier, Paris

    1980

    Maison de l’Afrique, Paris

    Johannesburg Art Gallery

    Rand Afrikaans University, Johannesburg

    1984

    South African National Gallery

    1986

    Historical Perspective of Black Art in South Africa, Alliance Française, Pretoria

    Academy Gallery, Paris

    Voices from Exile (Exhibition touring the USA)

    1986 - 1987

    Johannesburg Art Gallery

    1987

    Johannesburg Art Gallery

    1988

    Cassirer Fine Art Gallery, Johannesburg

    South African National Gallery, Cape Town

    Johannesburg Art Gallery

    1989

    Retrospective Exhibition, Johannesburg Art Gallery

    University of the Witwatersrand

    Standard Bank Arts Festival, Grahamstown

    Gertrude Posel Exhibition, Johannesburg

    Cassirer Fine Art Gallery, Johannesburg

    1999

    Standard Bank Gallery, Johannesburg

    2013

    “Song for Sekoto”: 26 April-2 June, Wits Art Museum, Johannesburg in conjunction with the Gerard Sekoto Foundation

    "A Portrait of South Africa / Portrait de l'Afrique du Sud": Paris, 30 October 2013 - 27 November (An exhibition of artworks by George Hallett, Peter Clarke and Gerard Sekoto)

  • Collections

    Public Collections - International

    • Municipal Collection of the City of Paris
    • Several works acquired by President Leopold Senghor -exhibited in the Presidential Palace in Senegal
    • Gallery Guildhall, Chicago
    • la Ville de Paris

    Corporate Collections - South Africa

    • Standard Bank Collection
    • TheSanlam Art Collection
    • The South African Reserve Bank Collection
    • The MTN Art Collection
    • The South African Broadcasting Corporation Art Collection
    • The Nedbank Art Collection

    Galleries & Museums

    • Johannesburg Art Gallery
    • Pretoria Art Museum
    • South African National Gallery, Cape Town
    • William Humphreys Art Gallery, Kimberley

    Universities

    • University of Fort Hare, Alice
    • University of South Africa, Pretoria
    • University of the Witwatersrand Art Galleries, Johannesburg

    Private Collections

    • Great Britain
    • France
    • United States of America
    • The Ellerman House Art Collection, South Africa
    • Various other local and international private collections
  • Awards

    1924

    Received prize for design of the school badge for the Botshabelo Training College

    1937

    Received 2ndPrize in the May Esther Bedford Art Competition

    1948

    Painting was used for the South African Art Exhibition Poster, Tate Gallery, London

    1959

    Painting used as a poster for the Second Congress of Negros Writers and Artists, Rome.

    1964

    Awarded a prize at the Exhibition of African Art, Nemours, France

    1968

    Awarded XIXe Grand Prix International de Peinture de Deauville

    1989

    Received an Honorary Doctorate from the University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg