Gerard Sekoto

Born: 1913, Middelburg, Transvaal

Died: 1993, Paris, France

Gerard Sekoto was born at the Lutheran Mission Station in Botshabelo near Middelburg in the Eastern Transvaal. Being the son of a missionary he was introduced to music at a young age. He studied at the Diocesan Teachers Training College in Pietersburg and on graduating taught at Khaiso Secondary School for 4 years. During this time he entered an art competition organized by Fort Hare University in which he came second, George Pemba won the competition.

In 1938 he moved to Johannesburg to pursue a career as an artist. He held his first solo exhibition in 1939. In 1940 Johannesburg Art Gallery purchased one of his works, it was the first painting by a black artist to enter a museum collection. In 1942 he moved to District 6 in Cape Town and then in 1945 he moved to Pretoria.

In 1947 he left for Paris under a self-imposed exile. At first it was hard and he was employed as a pianist for a nightclub. Between 1956-1960 he composed 29 songs recalling the loneliness of exile. In 1966 he visited Senegal for a year. In the 1970’s Gerard Sekoto’s works became politically motivated due to the apartheid in South Africa. In 1989 the Johannesburg Art Gallery honored him with a retrospective exhibition and the University of Witwatersrand with an honorary doctorate.

Artist CV

Jan Gerard Sekoto was born on 9 September 1913 in Botshabelo. Botshabelo was a mission station established by the German missionaries amongst the Pedi community in the Middelburg district of the Transvaal.

His father, Andreas Sekoto, was a leading member of the new Christian converts, and his uncles visited Germany to undertake the translation of the bible into Northern Sotho. Sekoto attended a school at Wonderhoek, which was established by his father, who was priest and teacher.

In 1930, he attended the Grace Dieu Institute run by the church of the province of South Africa. Here he completed his Standard Six (Grade Eight), and went on to study to become a teacher at the Diocesan Training College near Pietersburg. The writer Peter Abrahims, and artists and political activists such as Ernest Mancoba, also had attended the school. Like Sekoto, both later choose to go into exile.

From 1934 to 1938, Sekoto taught at Khaiso Secondary School near Pietersburg. At Khaiso he became close to Louis Makenna, Nimrod Ndelele and Ernest Mancoba, who had graduated at Fort Hare University. This highly gifted and creative foursome enriched each other’s lives, and the intellectual and artistic life of the school. Sekoto’s interest in art was encouraged by Mancoba.

In 1938, Sekoto won second prize in a national art competition organised by Ester Bedford at the University of Fort Hare. This encouraged him to leave teaching and move to Sophiatown, where in 1939 he began painting full-time. During this time he received encouragement from John Mohl and Brother Roger Castle of St Peter's Secondary School in Rosettenville.

Sekoto befriended artists Alexis Preller and Judit Glukman, who taught him to work in oil. Within a short time he started exhibiting his work and had build up a reputation in the Johannesburg art scene. However, Sekoto was restless, and unhappy in the racial and claustrophobic work of Johannesburg. Therefore in 1942, he decided to visit Cape Town.

In Cape Town he lived in District Six. That period was one of his most productive and saw the development of his distinctive style. He befriended trade unionist Max Gordon, artists Solly Disner, Louis Maurice, Lippy Lipschitz and Paul Kosten, who become a life long friend. Here he participated in the new group exhibition.

In 1945, Sekoto moved back to the Transvaal, to the black township of Eastwood in Pretoria. In 1946 and 1947 he held a number of successful exhibitions and began to make plans to move abroad. It was in 1947, just before the Afrikaner Nationalist party came to power, when Gerard Sekoto left South Africa for Paris. His exile was heavily influenced by his perception of the lack of potential freedom and growth as an artist in South Africa. The social, economic, and cultural context at the time did not supply a fertile ground which would allow him to enrich his experience, and properly establish himself as an artist.

When he arrived in Paris, Sekoto faced the hardships of adapting to another culture. He was confronted with the reality of a world where black and white people could coexist indifferently of each other’s race. With this began his realization that South Africa was a country conditioned by colonial racism. He began to take drawing lessons at de la Grande Chaumière, and soon enough, he made the acquaintance of other foreign workers and students. These included those who lived in Saint-Germain-des-Prés, where he moved in early 1948.

Sekoto is renowned and respected in South Africa for his two-dimensional art. A lesser known fact is that he could play several musical instruments. As the son of a missionary, music was a part of his life, and he was introduced to the family harmonium at an early age. Further, he composed his own musical works. In Saint-Germain, his musical abilities were what earned him a living, and he was employed as a pianist purely by chance at L’echelle de Jacob (Jacob’s ladder), a trendy nightclub/bar reopened for business after the war. Later, Sekoto recounted how this came about while walking with a Jamaican photographer friend:

"I was in a good mood. We saw people going in and out, carrying guitars. I suggested we have a beer. We went inside and saw a young girl there and I wanted to know what was happening. She told me that there was an audition in progress and if I was a musician, why did I not take a try. I told her that I was a pianist. She suggested I ask the patron for an audition. The patron was just in the area then and she told him that I played the piano. He suggested I play for him. I did. Remember, I was in a good mood. I do not know if I would have been able to have done it otherwise. I strummed and chanted and groaned and shouted."

In his own words, he “improvised”, and was offered the job immediately. At Jacob’s Ladder he played jazz and sang ‘Negro Spirituals’, popular French songs of the period and Harry Belafonte. Therefore, music became the way that he could pay his living and art school expenses. In music as in visual art, Sekoto found a way

to combine socializing with serious creative work, a habit he kept throughout his life.

Between 1956 and 1960, several of Sekoto’s compositions were published by Les Editions Musicales, and Sekoto played piano and sang on several records. He composed 29 songs, mostly excessively poignant, recalling the loneliness of exile yet displaying the inordinate courage of someone battling to survive in a foreign cultural environment.

Sekoto’s international acceptance began when he joined the Overseas Exhibition of South African Art at the Tate Gallery in London, along 53 white South African artists. Unfortunately, acclaim of the exhibition and his work in London, Belgium, Holland, and Paris, were not enough to secure Sekoto’s reputation.

Sekoto’s situation changed around 1953, where his acquaintance with local supporters such as Raymond de Cardonne and Jean Castel enabled him to join the art scene in the Rue des Grands Augustins. He held several exhibitions in Paris, some more successful than others.

During the 1960’s he occupied himself full-time with preparation for exhibitions in the United States and Europe. In 1961, his work was exhibited at the Harmon Foundation of New York, and was selected for a UNESCO exhibition in the near future. That year he also exhibited his work at the conference on Africa and Contemporary Civilization in Venice.

1963 was a year of successful exhibitions in South Africa. His work was shown at the Gallery-XPO in the Polley Arcade in Pretoria and at the South African institute of Race Relations in Durban. In 1966, he visited Venice, Rome, London and Dakar, which connected him with public and international issues. Impassioned by his return to Africa after 17 years, Sekoto stayed in Senegal for a year, working with fellow artist and friend Wilson Tiberio. He returned to Paris only after learning of the injury of his friend and lover Madame Martha Baillon.

In Senegal Sekoto re-established his emotional and cultural links with Africa, and strengthened his identity. It was during his time in Senegal that the increasingly radical South African government revoked his passport, making his exile mandatory.

In 1968, he was awarded a diploma by the jury of the ‘XIX Grand Prix International de Peinture de Deauville’, and in 1978, he was acclaimed as “our first great African Impressionist” for his Homage to Steve Biko. His life condition declined after the death of Martha Baillon, his companion and landowner. After her death, Sekoto struggled financially, and suffered from poor health.

He continued exhibiting his work periodically, and on 13 December 1989 he received an honorary doctorate from the University of the Witwatersrand. Sekoto passed away on 20 March 1993.

Exhibitions

1939 Selborne Hall, (South African Academy), Johannesburg

Gainsborough Galleries, Johannesburg

First Solo-Exhibition, Marlborough Gallery, Johannesburg

1940 Selborne Hall, (South African Academy), Johannesburg

Gainsborough Galleries, Johannesburg

1941 Selborne Hall, (South African Academy), Johannesburg

1942 Duncan Hall, (South African Academy), Johannesburg

1943 Gainsborough Galleries, (New Group), Johannesburg

Salisbury, Zimbabwe

1944 Argus Gallery, (New Group), Cape Town

Gainsborough Galleries, (Contemporary Art), Johannesburg

Jerome Gallery, Cape Town

1945 Cape Town

1946 Gainsborough Galleries, Johannesburg

1947 Solo-Exhibition, Gainsborough Galleries, Johannesburg

Solo-Exhibition, Christie's Pretoria

1948 Solo-Exhibition, French Overseas Colonial House, Paris

Gainsborough Galleries, (New Group), Johannesburg

1948/50 Tate Gallery, London, Belgium, France, Canada,USA, Netherlands

South African National Gallery, Cape Town

1949 Solo-Exhibition, Galerie Else-Clausen, Paris

1950 Solo-Exhibition, Galerie Vincent, Pretoria

1951 Stockholm, Sweden

1952 Van Riebeeck Exhibition, Cape Town

1953 Bulawayo, Zimbabwe

1954 I.D. Booksellers Gallery, Cape Town

1955 Petit Palais, Paris

Lawrence Adler Gallery, Johannesburg

University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg

Galerie Reflets de Paris, Hôtel du Parc, Paris

1956 Galerie Art Primier, Paris

1958 Lawrence Adler Gallery, Johannesburg

1959 Lawrence Adler Gallery, Johannesburg

1960 Solo-Exhibition, Galerie Saint-Placide, Paris

Salon d'Automme, Paris

Lawrence Adler Gallery, Johannesburg

1961 Galleria Santo Stefano, Venice, Italy

Adler Fielding Gallery, Johannesburg

1962 Adler Fielding Gallery, Johannesburg

1963 Morgenster Art dealers

Adler Fielding Gallery, Johannesburg

Durban Art Gallery

1964 Adler Fielding Gallery, Johannesburg

1965 Adler Fielding Gallery, Johannesburg

Piccadilly Gallery, London

1966 Théâtre Daniel Sorano, Senegal

Pretoria Art Museum

Adler Fielding Gallery, Johannesburg

1967 Théâtre Daniel Sorano, Senegal

1968 South African Association of Arts, Pretoria

Solo-Exhibition, Senegalese Embassy, Paris

Solo-Exhibition, Galerie Marthe Nochy, Paris

1969 Solo-Exhibition, Galerie Christiane, Paris

1970 Galleri BB, Denmark

Gallery Randers, Stockholm, Sweden

1973 Galerie du Maraias, Bourges, France

Pretoria Art Museum

1975 Solo-Exhibition, Atlantic Art Gallery, Cape Town

1978 Solo-Exhibition, Galerie Art Premier, Paris

1980 Maison de l'Afrique, Paris

Johannesburg Art Gallery

Rand Afrikaans University, Johannesburg

1981 Johannesburg Art Gallery

1984 South African National Gallery, Cape Town

1986 Academy Gallery, Paris

Washington, DC, USA

Alliance Française, Pretoria

1986/87 Johannesburg Art Gallery

1988 Solo-Exhibition, Cassirer Fine Art, Johannesburg

South African National Gallery, Cape Town

Natalie Knight Gallery, Johannesburg

Johannesburg Art Gallery

1989 Johannesburg Art Gallery

University of the Witwatersrand

Standard Bank Arts Festival, Grahamstown

Honours and Awards

1924 Prize for design of Botshabelo Training College badge

1937 Second prize May Esther Bedford Art Competition

1948 Sekoto's painting used on poster for exhibition of South African Art at the Tate Gallery, London

1959 Sekoto's poster for second Congress of Negro writers and artists in Rome.

1964 Exhibition of African Art, Nemours, France

1968 XIXe Grand Prix International de Peinture de Deauville

1989 Honorary Doctorate by University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg

Collections

His work is represented in numerous collections world wide including:

Johannesburg Art Gallery

South African National Art Gallery, Cape Town

University of Fort Hare Collection

University of South Africa Collection, Pretoria

University of the Witwatersrand

Sowetan Newspaper Collection, Johannesburg

William Humphreys Art Gallery, Kimberley

Municipal Collection of the City of Paris

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