Gerard Sekoto: Trailblazer and quiet artistic dignitary

Among African Black Modernists, art historians regard Sekoto as one of the trailblazers.

“Gerard Sekoto portrayed the dignity of life in South African Black communities. The Black artist depicted his countrymen with the status and humanity they deserved at the time, but was not afforded by the Apartheid regime,” says Strauss & Co cataloguer Leigh Leyde. “The artist is well known in the immediate art community, but is unfortunately not as well recognised on a national and international level among the general public,” she remarks.

Hot African art

There is a burgeoning interest in contemporary Pan-African art, bolstered by the various art exhibitions focusing on Pan-African modern and contemporary artists. “When We See Us: A Century of Black Figuration in Painting”, recently opened at the Zeitz Museum of Contemporary African Art in Cape Town, and in London “In the Black Fantastic” at London’s Hayward gallery garnered rave reviews. In keeping with the latest trends in the international art market, Strauss & Co is planning a non-commercial exhibition devoted to internationally celebrated South African modernist sculptors Ezrom Legae and Sydney Kumalo later in 2023. The art world’s expanding appetite for African art shines the spotlight on African modernists, who in the past were overlooked in favour of their European peers. Art lovers and collectors are now turning their attention to African modernist pioneers like Nigerian painter and sculptor Ben Enwonwu, Sudanese painter Ibrahim El-Salahi and our South African artists Ernest Mancoba and Sekoto.

Among African Black Modernists, art historians regard Sekoto as one of the trailblazers. “His paintings, rich with colour and infused with a light that seems to glow from within, suggest a sense of calm. This, despite the challenges that this artist must have endured under apartheid,” says Christine Mullen Kreamer, Deputy Director & Chief Curator, National Museum of African Art at the Smithsonian Institution in affirmation of the artist’s international status as a major African artist. “In South Africa, he was the first black artist whose work was purchased by the Johannesburg Art Gallery in 1940 – a painting called “Yellow Houses”, Leyde adds.

The South African years

Sekoto was born at Botshabelo in Mpumalanga in 1913 and worked as a teacher until 1939. He then moved to Johannesburg to pursue a career as an artist, where he lived in the vibrant multiracial communities of Sophiatown in Johannesburg and Cape Town’s District Six.  The paintings Sekoto produced between 1945 and 1947, between his arrival in Eastwood outside of Pretoria and his departure for France, represent the high point of his artistic career.   “Song of the Pick” (1946), one of his best-known works, dates from this period. Art historians refer to this time as Sekoto’s “Eastwood Period.”  “It was a time when he pushed his understanding of colour and form to new heights, when he seemed to sharpen even further his already remarkable sense of mood and movement,” Sekoto-scholar Lesley Spiro notes in the catalogue of Sekoto’s first major retrospective exhibition, held at the Johannesburg Art Gallery in 1989.

Group Talking- R 591 760

Although at first glance Sekoto’s artworks may seem like a simple, bucolic idyll, they also hold a strong socio-political comment on the status of Black people during the apartheid regime.  “His art provided a visual representation of life in South Africa, particularly for the non-whites and the injustice and oppression of their daily life due to the socio-political circumstances,” Arisha Maharaj, Art Specialist at Strauss & Co comments. He is well known for his use of bold, expressionistic colours and repetition of figures, which gives his paintings an almost rhythmic, musical quality.

The Paris years

In 1947 he went into self-imposed exile in Paris, never to return to his country of birth. Paris in the 1950s and 1960s was a hub of Afrocentrism and Black Consciousness. African modes of thought and culture were flourishing among expats from former French colonies as an antidote to the long tradition of European cultural domination. In 1966 Sekoto was invited to contribute to the First Festival of Negro Artists by Leopold Senghor, former President of Senegal and African poet.  “What is interesting about Gerard’s work during his exile in Paris is the subject matter – although he could have drawn inspiration straight from the vibrant bustling Parisian art scene, he always returned to the street scenes of his birth country, remarks Leyde.  “Although Sekoto is better known for his oil paintings, he first mastered watercolour when he was still teaching.  “Some of his most important works are in watercolour,” she comments. But Paris also had its pitfalls. South African author, Andre P Brink described Sekoto as one of Paris’ great debauchers, a brilliant jazz musician who’d drunk himself to the brink of death in Montmartre…’ He spent time in a mental institution outside of Paris and when his life partner, Marthe Baillon passed away in 1976, the artist was left destitute on account of Baillon having not left a will.  Sekoto would remain in France until he died in 1993.

Woman Walking with Dog. – SOLD R 250 360

Sekoto and the art market

Sekoto’s paintings sell for millions of rands at international auctions – a British auction house set a world record in 2011 when “Yellow Houses, District Six” sold for £602,400 (approx R7 million). Collectors covet his signature blue paintings, inspired by his travels in West Africa, Bonhams recently sold the oil painting “Three Children” for £126,300 (approx. 2.6 million) during their Modern and Contemporary African Art Auction in October this year. Close to home, the artist has also done well on the secondary art market ­- Strauss and Co’s record for a Sekoto painting is R3 751 440, for “Woman in the Country” painted during his “Eastwood”-period. ­ Despite record prices at art auctions, he remains an accessible artist with prints and watercolours selling between R20 000 and R50 000 at Strauss and Co’s most recent auctions.

Women in the Country – SOLD R 3 751 440

“Sekoto is a great addition for any collector looking to add a seminal African modernist to their art collection,” Leyde concludes.

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Saturday Afternoon – SOLD R 3 072 600

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