South Africa’s former apartheid policies prompted several accomplished artists to choose exile, among them Gerard Sekoto and Dumile Feni. Both formed important bonds with South African musicians and politicians living in London, Paris and New York. Some of their contemporaries, like Peter Clarke and George Pemba, however, chose to stay and achieved significant status later in their careers, after South Africa’s transition to democracy in 1994.
Important works by the two celebrated modernists, Dumile Feni and Gerard Sekoto, will feature in leading African art auction house, Strauss & Co’s sale on May 16 in Johannesburg. The auction offers a stunning selection of works by important black African modernists, among them Peter Clarke, Ben Enwonwu, David Koloane and George Pemba. Other highlights include:
- Museum quality works include Gerard Sekoto’s 1946 street scene and a rare colour drawing by Dumile Feni
- Celebrated Nigerian modernist painter Ben Enwonwu debuts at auction in South Africa
- Trans-Atlantic exchanges inform works by Peter Clarke, David Koloane and Sam Nhlengethwa as African artists that settled in London, Paris, New York and elsewhere
Modernist masters to be offered in May
Dumile Feni was a teenage hero of William Kentridge in the 1960s and is best known for his powerful drawings of human figures. His rare colour drawing Blue Suede Shoe (estimate R2-3m) measures nearly two-meters in height, and is part of a valuable archive of three, exile-period drawings consigned by the artist’s family estate. Gerard Sekoto’s 1946 oil composition, Up Prinsloo Street (estimate R2.5-3.5m) of a street intersection in Pretoria dates from his highly collectable Eastwood period (1946-1947), immediately preceding his move to Paris.
An accomplished printmaker, poet and painter, Peter Clarke, is represented in the auction by two early watercolours depicting circus entertainers (estimate R150 000-200 000). They are dated 1957. Two years earlier Clarke won a premier South African literary award, which led to a vibrant exchange of letters with American poet Langston Hughes, a key figure in the Harlem Renaissance.
George Pemba, along with Sekoto, is revered as one of four pioneering black South African modernists who emerged in the 1930s. Pemba’s affecting domestic scene, Woman Sewing (estimate R250 000-350 000) is dated 1976, the year of the Soweto Uprising. This turbulent year coincided with the nearing end of Pemba’s middle period and would ultimately herald a shift in his output.
Contemporary art selection offers works by prominent artists
In a first for Strauss & Co, the auction house is offering a landscape by Nigerian modernist artist Ben Enwonwu, Path Through Trees (estimate R150 000-200 000). Enwonwu’s reputation grew significantly after his 2008 exhibition in Johannesburg, which presented his work alongside Sekoto, Pemba and others, establishing a valuable pan-African conversation.
David Koloane and Sam Nhlengethwa are prominent figures in the story of contemporary South African art and its vibrant emergence globally in the 1990s. Koloane, who co-curated the seminal pan-African exhibition Seven Stories for London’s Whitechapel Gallery in 1995, is represented in the auction by an acrylic work painted a year earlier, The Ritual (estimate R150 000-200 000).
Sam Nhlengethwa has three works in the sale, including Glimpses of the Fifties and Sixties (estimate R250 000-350 000). Nhlengethwa was strongly influenced by the vanguard American artist Romare Bearden. His portfolio of collages from 2004 incorporates well-known photographs by important South African photojournalists Ernest Cole, Peter Magubane and Jurgen Schadeberg. The oil and college diptych City Scape (estimate R350 000-500 000) is dated 2018 and showcases the artist’s capacity to innovate his style.
Other notable contemporary artists with works in the auction include Nelson Makamo, Berni Searle and Mary Sibande.