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GERARD SEKOTO - FROM THE PARIS STUDIO (article first published : 2006-09-21)

An exhibition titled Gerard Sekoto – from the Paris studio is running at Standard Bank Gallery, Johannesburg, until September 30.

Gerard Sekoto (1913-1993) is not just one of South Africa’s most distinguished artists: he is also regarded as a cultural treasure. His works are signposts of South African culture and his contribution to art history has been acknowledged at the highest level.

In 1989, the year of his retrospective exhibition at the Johannesburg Art Gallery, he received an honorary doctorate from the University of the Witwatersrand; in 1996, the South African Post Office issued a series of postage stamps featuring his paintings; and in 2003, a decade after his death, he was awarded the Order of Ikhamanga by President Mbeki for excellence in his field. Sekoto was also commemorated when street names in Newtown, Johannesburg’s cultural hub, were changed in 2004 to reflect South Africa’s cultural icons: Becker Street became Gerard Sekoto Street.

Born at the Lutheran Mission Station at Botshabelo, Mpumalanga, Sekoto established himself as a painter of great merit in the 1940s after becoming a full-time artist in 1938. He was one of very few black Africans of his time to choose painting as a career. But that he is a first generation black African career artist does not in itself make him a cultural icon, although it does lend him a unique place in South African art history.

Sekoto was a highly skilful narrative painter. His work radiates with an exquisite, compelling beauty, which is reason enough for all the accolades heaped upon him. But what really makes him a cultural icon is that his work tells a vital, magnificently told story about black urban life in the townships and elsewhere in the days just before apartheid became official state policy in 1948. He stayed and worked in Sophiatown, District Six and Eastwood, all areas subsequently demolished by apartheid’s bulldozers. His compassionate and empathetic depictions of life in these areas constitute a body of works that is amongst the most valued in South African art history.

Sekoto painted against a backdrop in which most whites knew very little about black and ‘coloured’ life. What he did was to reveal to the world the lives of those who were shut away in townships and other locations, like District Six. In rendering a world largely unknown to those outside the township, he pioneered a genre that is today commonplace and a cornerstone of South African culture – township art. Every artist working in this genre follows in the footsteps of Sekoto, as do all black artists who have pledged themselves to art as a career.

The figures that are most acknowledged for their contribution to the campaign against colonialism and apartheid are those powerful leaders of “the struggle”, such as Nelson Mandela and Walter Sisulu. But Sekoto also played a part in that campaign, as he used art as a weapon for change. For him painting was not just painting, or “art-for-art’s-sake”, as his goal was to promote contact, inter-cultural awareness and empathy across historical barriers and the walls of prejudice. Sekoto put it like this in 1961: “Art,” he said, “is a human virtue and I have given my whole self to it, for it promotes human understanding among races rather than destroy it.”

By the time Sekoto left South Africa for Paris in 1947, he was held in high regard as a painter. But his reputation was to stretch beyond South Africa’s borders. In 1948, when the exhibition, ‘Contemporary South African Paintings, Drawings and Sculpture’, was held at the Tate Gallery in London, he was singled out by English critics as the outstanding painter amongst the group of 53 participating artists, all of whom were white except for Sekoto. A year later, in 1949, he was once more in the international news when Time Magazine honoured him by publishing an article on his life and work.

Sekoto’s life in exile was one of struggle followed by considerable acclaim. Described as “the father of the exiled home”, he became such a prominent figure abroad that he was sought after by visitors from all over the world, including many South Africans who kept him informed of developments back home. But in the country of his birth it was only in the late 1980s that he was really elevated to a pivotal place in South Africa art history. That it came so late in his life – he was by now an old man approaching death – was because, until the mid-1980s, black artists were virtually written out of South African art history. As the country marched towards democracy, a new art history began to emerge, based on new values, such as cultural diversity and inclusiveness. Sekoto stood at the forefront of this new art history.

Today Sekoto is perhaps the most legendary of all South African artists. He is fêted by just about everyone involved with the South African art world. His illustrious place in art history is reflected in the awards and honours bestowed upon him, not only here, but also abroad. In 1990 the French Government conferred on him one of the highest national cultural honours in France, the award of Chevalier of the Order of Arts and Letters; and just a year before his death in exile, the Clermont Art Society in Germany gave him their Lifetime Achievement Award.

The Standard Bank Gallery is situated on the corner of Simmonds and Frederick Street, Johannesburg. Contact 011 631 1889.




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