“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.
Born 9 December at Botshabelo near Middelburg, Transvaal
Attended the Diocesan College near Pietersburg
Taught at the Khaiso Secondary School near Pietersburg
Won 2ndPrize in an art competition
Went to Sophiatown, Johannesburg
Moved to District Six, Cape Town
Joined the new Group
Moved to Eastwood, Pretoria
Self-imposed Exile to Paris
Attended drawing classes at de la Grande Chaumière. Played the piano in bars at night
Articles on Sekoto appeared inTimemagazine (8 August 1949, October 1949)