Wits Art Museum, Johannesburg, is currently presenting Song for Sekoto 1913 – 2013, an exhibition celebrating the centenary of Gerard Sekoto.
See a slideshow of works from the show here
He was born 9 September 1913 in Botshabelo, a German missionary station (Lutheran Church) for the Pedi community in Middleburg, Transvaal. He had a strict Christian upbringing and his family were quite well educated. Music also played an important part of his early upbringing within the missionary environment and throughout his life.
He became a teacher near Pietersburg but after he won a prize in a national art competition in 1938 he left teaching and moved to Sophiatown, where he started to paint full time. During the 1940’s and early 1950’s Sophiatown became a center of black art, politics, and culture; however, in 1955, the ruling South African National Party passed the Group Areas Act which ordered for the removal of the black residents of Sophiatown
Local artists Alexis Preller and Judith Gluckman taught him to work in oil. He was unhappy in the racially segregated environment in Johannesburg, and moved to District Six in Cape Town where he developed his distinctive style. In 1945 he moved to Eastwood in Pretoria where most of his best known paintings were painted.
In 1947, he decided to move to Paris in self exile, the year before the election that brought the Afrikaner Nationalist government into power and just before Apartheid became official. Through his music he paid for his living and art school expenses. It was only in the 1960’s that he started to receive recognition for his art and held several successful international exhibitions. He never returned to South Africa and died in 1993. Sekoto is remembered as “the father” of black modernism in South Africa, and he remained a role model for future black artists.
His art can be divided into three periods: the late 1930s in Sophiatown; the early 1940s in District Six; and 1940s in Eastwood, Pretoria. His work in Paris from 1947 onwards was less characteristic as is seen in the Senegalese Dancers which shows Cubistic infleunce. He is recognized as a pioneer in urban black art, and social realism. His work became less about recording views of his environment or observed reality, and more about using line, form, shape and color as expressive means in and of themselves.
His work was influenced by the socio-political environment of South Africa in which he grew up where black people had less rights than white people. His style of painting was also influenced by Post Impressionists like Van Gogh whom he was introduced to while teaching at the Khaiso School. The thick brushstrokes of Van Gogh possibly influenced his earlier work such as Poverty in the Midst of Plenty (1939).
During 1944 he lived near Distric Six in Cape Town, a neighbourhood whose cultural blend, racial mix, and later demise was similar to Sophiatown’s. According to some observers he was influenced by the expressionist work of Maggie Laubser, who had lived in Berlin during the 1920s. Through these experiences Sekoto gained exposure to the work of White South African Artists who followed international trends, and through them to the major styles of European modern art.
Analysis by Esme Berman;
History was made in 1940, when Johannesburg Art Galery bought Sekoto’s Yellow houses – a Street in Sophiatown, it was the first work by a black artist to enter the museum’s collection. This artwork differs from many of Sekoto’s other Sophiatown paintings of the time in that the emphasis is on the setting, rather than on its human occupants. In most of the township scenes that he completed before and shortly after 1940, the figures are the primary subjects of the pictures and they are usually brought into the foreground, close to the picture-plane. Although Sekoto went to pains to establish the context of the individuals or activities depicted, seldom were the buildings or the streets themselves the centre of attention.
In Yellow Houses, however, Sekoto is portraying the place. The small figures, almost insignificant in relation to the broad ribbon of uneven, unpaved road, serve to dramatise the bleakness of the dry surroundings; and the lushness of the environment is further emphasised by the triangular patch of garden in the foreground, where green life struggles through the dry red soil.
The structure of the scene is more sophisticated – and more conventional – than many of his other compositions of the period. The strong diagonal movement that takes the eye into the distance is interrupted, and focus effectively returned to the immediate vicinity, by the the firm vertical of the blue building to the right. The restated vertical accent of the gatepost, right up against the picture-plane, acts like a finger pointing to the sunny yellow houses that provide the title of the painting.
In contrast with their drab surroundings, those neat domestic buildings appear cheerful and inviting, havens from the outside glare. It is afternoon in Sophiatown; the workers are still away in the city; and the life of this side-street is concealed behind those yellow walls, inside the houses, towards which children are proceeding.
From his position in the dwelling just behind the blue gatepost, Sekoto has given us a long view of the street. To contain the scene within so small a format, he has miniaturised all pictorial data other than the yellow wall, denying this work the bright, contrasting slabs of colour that activate the elements of his more typical close-up views.
During the Eastwood period, the influence of Expressionists can be seen especially in his colour use and distortion of perspective. The simplification of his figures also bears a resemblance to the influence of African Art on Post Impressionists. In some paintings you can also see the influence of the Impressionists treatment of Shadows where there are only coloured shadows. Later work showed the influences of Cubism.
Aim and Characteristics of Art
Although Sekoto’s style resembles some characteristics of Post Impressionist like Gauguin and Van Gogh, the subjects of his paintings reflects the South African socio-political environment in which he grew up.
The images he selected for depiction were part of his personal exploration of the novelty of urban life (Johannesburg was only 50 years old when he arrived there). They were also experiments with modernistic styles, and a method for representing the experiences of black people in South Africa. Many of them showed this experience in a positive light, but they also contained the beginnings of Resistance Art, especially in such works like Song of the Pick.
Sekoto’s works shows the social tensions of black culture in South Africa. The subject matter of his paintings included scenes of poverty of township life and expresses the feelings of the suffering the black people experienced in a segregated South Africa. His style of work was termed “figurative expressionism”where the images and perspective were still recognisable but distorted to express the hardships of the peoples lives that he depicted. He can also be referred to as a “social realist”. Social Realism depicts social and racial injustice, economic hardship, through pictures of life’s struggles; often showing working class activities as heroic in simple everyday situations.
He used strong and bright colours such as red, orange and black. Sekoto also used unusual viewpoints, often with distorted and unusual perspective. He rarely painted white people, and then only as warders or foremen/the boss. According to Sekoto he wanted his art to promote understanding among races rather than destroy it.
The composition of Prison Yard shows the influence of the German Expressionist Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, it its unusual diagonal angle, strong expressive and contrasting colours and grouping of subjects.
Examples of Paintings analysed from previous students:
Sekoto draws his inspiration mainly from his every day life. In Song of the Pick he paints in a romantic realistic style, that reminds one of Realists like Courbet and Millet. His style of painting is also called social-realism. Romantic Realism means that although the image is recognisable, and depicts the life of ordinary people, the use of colour is arbitrary, and the subject is softened and more attractive than it is in reality. That is you do not see the sweat and the dirt, or the agonising expression on the faces.
This painting especially shows Sekoto’s feelings about the conditions of black people in South Africa during his time. Sekoto rarely painted white people in his paintings except to show the people’s resentment towards for example the foreman. Everything in this painting focus on the foreman who is the focal point. Your eye is immediately drawn to him. He stands on bright yellow earth, with a yellow jacket and hat and it feels as if the light is coming from behind him. All the picks of the the workers also points diagonally towards him. The diagonal lines creates a feeling of tension.
The workers shapes are emphasized by the repetition of almost the exact line giving the painting a rhythmic feeling which perhaps is a visual representation of the the rhythms of African worker’s “call and answer”songs and a reflection of the title - Song of the Pick.
(We could not find any South African rhythmic worker songs recorded , so this African chain gang song is the closest worker songs that labourers in Sekoto’s painting would have sung – same rhytm. These work songs are universally sung in Africa where monotonous work is involved)
The colours of the workers are mostly in soft pastel colours, painted in harmony with the background. Bright Primary colours are used to highlight the pastel colours. The paint is applied in a manner similar to the techniques used by Post Impressionist painters with loose brush strokes and on some of the workers bold black shadows which creates patterns rather than tonal modelling of graded colour as is found in traditional Western Art principles.
The yellow pastels of the foreman’s clothing and the earth he stands on is repeated in the patches of colour on workers clothing and in the yellow brush strokes in the red earth they stand on. This strengthens the feeling of harmony in the composition. The patterns created by the repeated shapes of the workers with the bright colours, reminds one of traditional African bead work The bright colours does not feel joyful though, it has a menacing feel about it.
The menacing feeling is strengthened by the anticipated movement of the picks about to strike. As all the attention is focused on the foreman one feels that they are about to strike the foreman rather than the earth. The contrast between the light area of the boss and the darker area of the workers, as well as the diagonal line of the workers, also heightens the feeling of drama in the painting.
You can’t see any individual faces of the workers in the painting. This is maybe a statement of how black people felt in a segregated South Africa – faceless masses. The earth the workers stand on and the earth the boss stands on is painted in different colours which creates a very definite segregation the workers stand and the foreman. This may be a reference to the Land Act where whites and blacks were not allowed to live in the same areas.
Song of the Pick is a good example of the type of social-realism Sekoto was best known for. Just like Courbet and Millet in the time of the French revolution, the viewer is made aware of the hardships of the ordinary person in South Africa. Through his work, Sekoto created empathy for the ordinary people in South Africa.
Sekoto wrote about his Eastwood painting Sixpence a Door:
Our home was close to the playing ground which was in the centre of the township. On Sundays Zulu dancers would come and put up a tent. People would be eager to see inside but many would hang around outside with curiosity as they did not have the sixpence to spend.
Sekoto painted this painting during the period when he was living in Eastwood in Pretoria, just before he left South Africa in self-exile to France. The painting shows a scene from the township life. On Sundays Zulu dancers would put up a tent and it cost 6 pence to watch them dance. Some people did not have the money to go inside and would hang around outside with curiosity. The theme reflects his life, his vision of Africa which is different to the way a European would have seen the subject.
To me the focus point is the tent because it’s bright yellow stands out against the orange building and the surrounding contrasting cool greens and blues of the landscape. The horizontal shapes of the tent and the building is also the largest objects in the painting and blocks the view of what is happening behind it. You can just get a feeling that there is a lot of activity behind the screen and the building because you can see a crowd of people gathering in the middle ground between the buildings and the background landscape. Children are standing on the ledge of the the building to the right trying to see what is happening. The group of people are standing in front of the tent also forms a barrier to what is happening behind it. This creates a feeling of curiosity in the viewer as well; What is happening that everyone want to see?
Sekoto uses distorted perspective in the painting because the lines and forms of the background are just as clear and the colours just as bright as it is in the foreground, instead of becoming more blurry and faded towards the horizon as it would in traditional western painting using aerial perspective. The linear perspective on the buildings is also not quite right but rather emphasize the space between the buildings where the people are gathered to watch the dancers. The people watching from the road to the left, are proportionally not quite right either, because they are almost the same size as the figures in the foreground against the tent, but they do feel further away because their shapes are less distinct and thinner. The road on which they are walking leads the eye into the background.
The shapes of the figures have been stylized and simplified but they are still recognizable as humans. The stylization of the figures reminds one of the shapes of traditional African sculpture. The mountains and vegetation in the background has been stylized so that they feel like patterns with heavy black outline and shading. The blue horizontal line amongst the green in the background is an arbitrary use of colour because you will not find blue grass in nature but it adds to the feel of lush green surrounding in contrast with the warm colours in the foreground. The use of arbitrary colour and heavy black outline and shadow creating patterns, shows the influence of Post Impressionist artists.
The shapes and forms in the painting has been shaded so that you feel real forms rather than flat 2 D shapes. Sekoto also used his brushwork on the landscape to feel like repeating patterns creating a feeling of rhythm, perhaps giving a feel of drumbeat that one would hear with Zulu dancers. In contrast the grading of tone on the figures is done with soft brushwork. He uses a limited palette of colour; yellow, orange, red, green, and blue which also gives the painting a feeling of harmony and rhythm.
In this painting we can see Sekoto’s characteristic use of Romantic, Social-Realism. He shows ordinary people in an ordinary life as heroes but he does not paint the ugly dirt but rather romanticise the image by painting it more beautiful than it is. He also shows the warmth of his own feelings towards the subject seen through the eyes of an African living in Africa. You get the feeling that Sekoto remembers this scene with a happy feeling. He recorded a scene from a historical period in South Africa that is now gone.
In Prayer in Church, Sekoto could have depicted a scene from his life in the Lutheran Missionary. One wonders whether the preacher could be a representation of his father. The figure represents a typical expression of his work during his life at Eastwood in Pretoria where most of his best known paintings originates from.
The preacher in the background attracts the viewer’s eye as a dominant focal point with the white cross almost glowing on the pulpit. He is raised above the congregation against a dirty mustard yellow background. The composition is well balanced in both cool and warm colours and placing of the people. The perspective appears realistic with the pictures in the background blurred to vision.
The congregation’s backs are turned towards the viewer, except for the children whose faces are covered with their hands in prayer and a small child in the foreground plays. All the people are dressed in blues and blacks which against the dirty yellow of the walls creates a sombre mood. It feels more like a funeral than just a normal church meeting and one feels that he choose this particular moment to express the sorrow of the people’s suffering. Even the light that streams in through the window out of view feels like a cold winter’s morning light.
The technique he uses is characteristic of this period of his paintings. He uses fine brush strokes that reminds one of the Impressionists brush work with no well defined outlines but the theme he uses is a typical South African scene in the environment Sekoto grew up, showing him as a social realist.
Key words for Sekoto: Social-Realism, Romantic-Realism, Figurative-expressionism, distorted perspective, stylized figures, bright colour
Esme Berman – Painting in South Africa, 1993, Southern Book Publishers
Drawing at Duke
John Peffer, Art and the End of Apartheid
Visual Art Notes – Annaliese