Gerard Sekoto (1913 – 1993)
The young Sekoto’s first love was music, and his father bought him a harmonium. He subsequently learned to read music and compose his own tunes. Although there were no drawings or paintings around him as a child, he started drawing on his brother’s slate, and later at school, with pencil on paper. He had no idea what ‘art’ was but drew people, buildings and animals.
Gerard Sekoto went to study at the Diocesan College in 1930 to become a teacher like his father. After qualifying in 1934 he taught at Khaiso Secondary School in Pietersburg. Sekoto’s artistic abilities expressed in drawing and sculpting evolved to watercolour painting. He would draw and paint late into the night by candlelight. After he won second prize in a national art competition, with George Pemba winning first prize, he decided to pursue a career as an artist.
Sekoto’s attraction to the contemporary lifestyle in the big cities prompted his move to Johannesburg in 1939, where lived in Sophiatown with his cousins. The paintings he painted at this time were in poster paints on brown paper while working on the floor of his cousins’ home. He met the painter Judith Gluckman at the Gainsborough Galleries in 1940, and she introduced him to all the aspects of painting with oil paints.
While living in Sophiatown Sekoto’s paintings mainly depicted the lifestyle and scenery of the township, often commenting on the social conditions and underlying mood of the community. In 1942 Sekoto had a successful solo exhibition at the Gainsborough Gallery in Johannesburg and made enough money to realise one of his dreams – to visit the city of Cape Town.
In Cape Town Sekoto joined the ‘New Group’ and exhibited around the country with them. He lived in a poor part of District Six, here he experienced the hardship and hopelessness of parts of the community, and his paintings from this period captured the desperate mood and atmosphere of struggle very successfully.
Sekoto moved to Eastwood outside Pretoria in 1945, where he lived with his mother and stepfather. In 1947 he had a very successful solo exhibition at Christies Galleries in Pretoria and a near sell-out solo exhibition at the Gainsborough Galleries in Johannesburg.
At the age of 33, Sekoto used the proceeds of these sales to fund his trip to Paris - travelling by boat from Cape Town and spending three weeks in London en route. An exhibition of South African Art was being held at the Tate Gallery in London at the time and Sekoto’s painting ‘Six pence a door’ was on show. The Queen Mother visited the exhibition and commented on how much she liked the Sekoto painting.
Once in Paris, Sekoto found a job playing the piano in a restaurant soon after his arrival. He attended classes at the Academie de la Grande Chaumiére and spent time in bistros drawing people. He painted in his cold, dark hotel room, played the piano every night to earn money and struggled terribly because he could not speak French.
He had his first one man show in Paris in 1949 at Galérie Else-Claussen, owned by a man called Raymond. Sekoto became frustrated and angry because the exhibition was not a success and after an argument with Raymond, he was taken to St Anne’s Mental Hospital. While he was in hospital an American woman bought one of his paintings from the Galérie Else-Claussen and asked her journalist friend to do an article about him for Time Magazine. The article appeared in October 1949, resulting in more sales and allowing Sekoto’s situation to improve.
When Sekoto left St Anne’s hospital Raymond organised for him to stay in a room in his friend’s apartment. Her name was Marthe, and she and Sekoto became friends, with him looking after her when she was sick. He had a large studio in her apartment and continued to paint scenes of South African life because he wanted to keep his own identity and not loose his roots. He took part in various group exhibitions in Paris as well as in Sweden, Denmark and Italy and even, in 1950, in Pretoria.
Sekoto had joined Présence Africaine, an organisation for artists from Africa, and attended their month long conference in Dakar, Senegal in 1966. Afterwards, he decided to stay in Senegal and paint the Senegalese people. He could understand the way of life much better in Dakar than in Paris, and loved the bright sun and warm colours. He undertook a two month trip to Casamance and did many sketches which he used as reference for paintings. Back in Dakar, he produced a group of paintings based on his Senegalese experience for an exhibition there, which was a huge success.
Sekoto had to return to Paris in 1967 to take care of Marthe who was very sick. In the next few years after his return he held solo exhibitions in the Galérie Christine Colin, Galérie Marthe Nochy and the Galérie du Marais in Paris and participated in group exhibitions in various cities in Europe.
Marthe died in 1982 and Sekoto had to move out of her apartment. In 1983 he moved to Corbeil just outside of Paris, but two months later he was involved in a serious car accident and his right leg was broken. He stayed in the hospital in Corbeil for three years - at first bed-ridden, later using a wheelchair and then two sticks to walk. He was not able to paint in hospital, but continued to sketch.
He moved to a commune for artists called La Maison Nationale de Artistes, in a small town called Nogent-sur-Marne, near Paris, in 1987. The next year a book about Sekoto’s life, written by Barbara Lindop, was published in South Africa, bringing him much publicity. In 1989 the Johannesburg Art Gallery organised a large exhibition of his work, titled ‘Gerard Sekoto : Unsevered Ties’.
In the preface to the exhibition catalogue, Lesley Spiro writes: “Gerard Sekoto is undoubtedly one of the pioneers of modern South African art. However, partly because of his long exile and partly because of the Eurocentric orientations in South African art history, he has not received the recognition in this country that he deserves.”
Gerard Sekoto died on 20 March 1993 and was buried in the Nogent-sur-Marne cemetery.
Lindop, Barbara - GERARD SEKOTO. Randburg: Dictum 1988
Spiro, Lesley - GERARD SEKOTO: UNSEVERED TIES. Johannesburg Art Gallery: 1989
Manganyi, N Chabani - A BLACK MAN CALLED SEKOTO. Johannesburg: Witwatersrand University Press 1996
Manganyi, N Chabani - GERARD SEKOTO, “I am an African”. Johannesburg
© Johans Borman Fine Art