Posts Tagged ‘emerging voice of black artists’

The few black artists who made any early inroad into the urban South African art scene occupy a position parallel to that of Africana painters, who were primarily producing an accurate pictorial record of the curious exotic details of fauna and flora, and studies of the indigenous people.

In tandem with the colonial and apartheid view that blacks were a ‘breed’ apart, what many white collectors expected of black artists was an art that, through their eyes, represented cultural apartness, or what was called “native studies”. Such works were those depicting the ‘authentic’, mystical and exotic African, showing ‘tribal’ life and customs –  like for example Gerard Bhengu’s ‘Smiling Young Man with Feathered Headdress’ (undated).

Gerard Bhengu, ‘Smiling Young Man with Feathered Headdress’, undated

Early Pioneers

The foundations of fine art by black South African artists were laid by early pioneers; John Koenakeefe Mohl, Ernest Mancoba, George Pemba and Gerard Sekoto. All of these early figures had produced artworks unprecedented in terms of the history of art by black South Africans. It was an art that was a response to the changing conditions of black experience, with an increase in Christian influence and pressure from a white controlled economy.

Their art was also formed as a result of the influence of a western approach to art making, and the introduction of materials and techniques associated with the European tradition. These artists had had the opportunity to study both locally and abroad.

John Mohl, Ploughing, 1956

John Mohl, Ploughing, 1956

Of the early pioneers only Mohl was able to have any direct influence on art developments in South Africa in the forties. And it is for this reason that he can be considered to be the father of township art. He was certainly the first black artist to work and exhibit as a professional fine artist in Sophiatown and Soweto, and the first artist who offered art classes in the township.

John Koenakeefe Mohl

In the 1930s and 1940s, Mohl and Sekoto painted images of the township and township life of the black and ‘coloured’ working class, against a backdrop which most whites, because of the divides of segregation and class polarisation, knew very little about black.  Through their art they revealed to whites, the primary consumers of art at the time, the lives of people who were confined to townships when they were not toiling in the white economy.

In depicting those who were considered only good enough to keep the wheels of industry turning and the kitchen sinks of leafy white suburbs clean, Sekoto, along with Mohl and Pemba, pioneered a genre that is today commonplace and a cornerstone of South African culture – ‘township art’. Every artist who has worked in this genre,  follows in the footsteps of Mohl, Sekoto, Mancoba and Pemba.

Township Art

The label, Township Art, was coined originally in reference to the movement that blossomed in the black townships during the 1960s. Correctly, therefore it applies only to that historical phenomenon and the works of art that issued from it. Township art became a kind of hothouse, in which a generation of  young black artists ripened.

The main identifying features of of Township Art were its subject matter and its source. The artists involved were mainly residents of the black townships on the outskirts of Johannesburg; most students of the Polly Street Art Center; and their primary theme was the everyday life of the community in which they lived. Township Art was essentially concerned with the human situation. Conceived amid the the daily angst and hardship of existence in a deprived society, it testified to the spiritual resilience of the artists.

Social circumstances were even less favourable than in Sekoto’s day. Sophiatown’s and District Six communities and culture had been forcibly removed and dispersed. The anonymity of life in the sprawling Soweto, the loss of community cohesiveness and the feelings of displacement that followed the destruction of Sophiatown gave rise to a yearning for self-affirmation and to give a definition to a collective identity. It is therefore not surprising that Township Art coincided with the dawning of Black Consciousness among the townships residents.

Yet, the wave of self-expressive energy that surged out of Soweto in the sixties was not motivated by political agendas. Though their records of daily life were often permeated by subjective emotions, there was little ideological content in the earlier work.

Fear, charcoal on paper, 1966 (Dumile Feni)

Lack of resources meant that many black artists had to rely on media other than oil-painting, and making a virtue of necessity gave added force to their work. Black artists also made striking use of the accessible and relatively cheap medium of the linocut, charcoal and pen drawing and watercolours.

Feni (known as Dumile), for instance, became a master of drawing, often in ballpoint pen. He encapsulated profound personal emotions in images of poverty, brutality and fear. Dumile’s powerful sense of anger, frustration and despair at the deprived lives of his fellow black South Africans fed into work of extraordinary power; his distorted figures seemed to have been physically deformed by the very forces of society. Called “the Goya of the townships”, he painted his own version of Picasso’s Guernica, a cry of pain at human suffering. (Ref)

African Guernica - Dumile Feni

African Guernica – Dumile Feni

By the Mid-seventies, perspectives shifted as Black Consciousness gained impetus and township residents became increasingly politicised.

Some Artists of this Era

Gerard Bhengu

Peter Clarke

Ernest Mancoba

Gladys Mgudlandlu

George Pemba

Gerard Sekoto

Michael Zondi


Esme Berman – Painting in South Africa

Archival Platform -Emile Maurice –  Gerald Seto

Marie-Lais Emond – Township art: South Africa’s political writing on the wall

Kayla Reid – Introduction to Township Art

Polly Street Era

South African art – emerging Black Artists

Peter Clarke works across a broad spectrum of media. But he also has a literary side as an internationally acclaimed writer and poet. Of these three roles, he jokes:

“Had I been triplets, it would have made it much easier because each could have his own job. There are times when I go through a writing phase and there are times for phases of picture-making but there is never a dull moment.” (Ref)

Clarke is well known  for his depictions of the social and political experiences of ordinary South Africans.

south african art times

Although he and his family were forcibly removed from their home in Simon’s Town during the apartheid era, his art is without bitterness. Often humorous, it is rather a scrutiny and celebration of life in all its aspects, and an expression of his ongoing delight in ordinary, everyday experiences. (Ref)

Clarke is best known for his graphic prints, particularly his woodcuts, and more recently he has moved into collage. He also uses leather, glass, found objects and other mixed media to produce his colourful work.


Peter Clarke was born in 1929.Clarke finished his schooling in 1944 and worked as a ship painter in the Simon’s Town dockyard. In 1947, he read an article on Gerard Sekoto, the first South African black artist to be represented in a public collection. Sekoto’s success inspired him to become an artist, and in his early twenties he declared that he would make his living as an artist, which was a highly unusual ambition for a young black South African at the time.

In this Video Peter Clarke discusses October Landscape and talks about his background

October Landscape 1964

Clarke is largely self-taught and has learned much from books and magazines. He did however, receive some informal art tuition, which began in 1947 in District Six where he was taught by the London-born artist , John Coplans. In 1948, these classes moved to the Roland Street Technical College, Cape Town where they were run by pioneering members of the New Group.

With assistance from his life-long friend, James Matthews, Clarke held his first solo exhibition in the newsroom of the newspaper, The Golden City Post, in 1957. At that time he said: ‘Before my exhibition, I was just another coloured man. Our people took it for granted that only whites could do such things. Now they are becoming aware of the fact that we can do these things too; that we are human beings.’

Clarke later worked with Katrina Harries at the Michaelis School of Art , University of Cape Town in 1961, and then spent time at the Rijksakademie van Beeldende Kunsten in Amsterdam and at Atelier Nord in Oslo. (Ref)

Over the last sixty years, Clarke has reflected on his country’s social and political history and is often referred to as the ‘quiet chronicler’. His work constitutes a subtle critique of apartheid and its social consequences as well as more recently, aspects of the ‘new’ South Africa.

Peter Clarke’s art is about people, and in his reflection of humanity and in the contribution he has made to his country’s cultural development, he has become an inspiration to many other artists.Although largely self-taught, Clarke was encouraged by taking informal art classes and studying European masters that he saw reproduced in books – including Picasso, and the South African modernist Gerard Sekoto (the first black artist to be represented in a South African public collection). Witty, sharp, poignant, aesthetically memorable, Clarke’s work provides an extraordinary context for discussion of his country as it prepares to celebrate 20 years since the momentous elections that brought Nelson Mandela to President.

His early pieces, reflect the social disruption of the Cape Flats. Works from the late 1960s refer to the trauma of forced removals from Simon’s Town, and the ambitious paintings he began making during his trips to America, Norway and France in the 1970s.

Clarke works from his home in Ocean View, Cape Town. He has never had his own studio and this fact impacts upon his work. Printmaking can be awkward if not impossible in a small space and this restriction has helped trigger Clarke’s recent move to alternative media.

The confines of home have also impacted on the scale of his work. Small artworks are more practical and Clarke says his work has therefore tended to be smaller. He says: “I do make tiny prints at home but one has to improvise terribly and [working from home] does have an impact on size and the amount of prints you can produce.”

Clarke works consistently, interspersed with other activities, in a natural rhythm that oscillates between writing and art making. “I work when the idea strikes. I don’t have a regime; while I work the ideas come. I’m not interested in waiting around for the muse,” he says.

Listening to Distant Thunder - 1970. Oil and sand on board,

Listening to Distant Thunder – 1970. Oil and sand on board,

Although his work has naturally evolved over time, Clarke says its latest twist towards collage heralds a more abrupt and obvious change. He says:

“Up to a certain time, I worked in a narrative manner. I had things to say and it was also expected of black artists to make statements about the state of affairs in the country. But it was a phase and I felt at the time that I also wanted to produce artwork without it necessarily making a statement about anything in particular.”

“After 1994, I started feeling that one must also explore other things beyond the statement.  I felt it was a time for liberation, a renaissance as being felt [in South Africa] in any case. So I gave free reign to working with various kinds of material like coloured paper, cloths, labels and whatever I also became aware at this time of a lot of scrap material – like junk mail. Some of it is so colourful. I realized I could use it as material.

“South Africa is a very inspiring place.  I am very much interested in people. If I decided only to work in a figurative way, there would be no end to what I want to say about people. People here are more involved with each other. The climate has a lot to do with it. And the variety of people – the physical variety – is very exciting in fact and the way people interact or not. I used to think of South Africa as a mad house but a mad house is far more interesting, really. Had I lived in Europe, my art would have been completely different and probably not at all figurative.

“My earliest influences were the Mexican artists of the 1930s, 40s and 50s and the German Expressionists. I have also been very interested in Japanese art. It has a very attractive style. In the early 1940s and 50s, I also began thinking about what an art teacher [at school] had said. And I took evening classes at St Phillips in District Six where I came into contact with others involved in that space. The interaction led to exploration through books and exhibitions in Cape Town.

Peter Clarke Landscape White Sheep

Peter Clarke Landscape White Sheep


He was an extremely versatile artist, a book illustrator, a poet, a gifted writer of short stories, and a book-binder. As a printmaker he has been influenced by the prints of the German Expressionists and by Japanese woodcuts. He also has a strong interest in 20th-century Mexican artists such as Diego Rivera (1886–1957) and David Siqueiros (1896–1974). Their subject matter, with its strong social and political content and their depiction of ordinary people in a bold, naturalistic style, influenced his approach. (Ref)

Peter Clarke

Ruin 1964

By the time Clarke painted Ruin, the group areas act had been in effect for 14 years, tearing apart families, destroying homes and communities. In Ruin Clarke reflects the prevailing despair through an abandoned shack and a sollitary  crippled figure limping out of the picture plane, increasing the viewer’s discomfort with complimentary colours and a jagged composition. (Ref)

With retrospect, Clarke thinks the theme of space is recurrent through his work. He says: “Physical space, mental space these seem to have been a preoccupation throughout my life.” Even his poetry has reflected this concern, as the words of one of his poems describe: “Sunlight reflected in a distant window”.

Wind Blowing on the Cape Flats 1960

In Wind Blowing on the Cape Flats, Clarke portrays a scene from a settlements outside city centre, so typical of Township Art, conceived amid the daily angst and hardship of existence in a deprived society. Clarke gives a view of the Cape Flats with people struggling to move in die wind blowing on the sand dunes. Clarke reflects the harshness of life on the Cape Flats by focussing on the harshness of the weather – the blinding sun and the merciless wind. (Anyone who has experienced the South Easter in the Cape heat , combined with the stinging sand, will understand the extreme discomfort.) The stylized, strongly defined shapes are reminiscent of both Japanese woodcuts and Mexican Expressionism (See Diego Rivera 1886 – 1957) (Ref)

The girl with the bag forms the focal point as she is the biggest shape and is placed in the centre of the painting. The lines of the grass and the shadow of her legs leads the eye to her.  Clarke also simplified his shapes; they are generalized shapes and do not show individual features, for example the box-like houses and the ripples of the sand blowing on the dunes become patterns.

On the Dunes – 1960

This is the third in a series of films of Peter Clarke talking about his work at the Wind Blowing on the Cape Flats exhibition. Here he talks about Winter sun, Amsterdam.

This is the fourth in a series of films of Peter Clarke talking about his work at the Wind Blowing on the Cape Flats exhibition. Here he talks about the works he collectively calls the ‘Ghetto Fence Series’.

Peter Clarke

some pathways to education lies between thorns

Here’s a Video of Peter Clarke discussing Some Pathways to Education lies Between Thorns

“I’ve been interested in space for a very long time, since early childhood in fact. Not only that kind of space, but also the spaces that separate people. The spaces that people have to traverse. In this particular work, what inspired this one was the fact that in South Africa, in the rural areas there’s a great deal of having to walk to school. Often children travel long distances every day. Going to school and traveling back afterwards. When I for instance spent a while in a village called Tesselaarsdal in the earlier part of my career there was one group of children who walked five miles to school in the morning and then walked the five miles back after school. So I was seeking out the difficulties involved in gaining an education. And so the title eventually came to me for this particular one, ‘For Some the Pathway to Education Lies Between Thorns’.”

“This is a lino-cut print. It is a reduction lino-cut print. What I mean by reduction is I draw on the block, cut very carefully. I’ve already decided in my mind that this is going to be a five colour block print…a five colour print…and so I cut the block and I ink for the first stage, print it, then I cut it further, ink it a different colour, printed it and so on, until I’ve completed the block. I’ve completed the block and what will remain over on the block so what has printed the darkest colour here. It is actually a very simple process, but I’ve felt with many adult artists that I’ve spoken to about print making, they haven’t the foggiest idea what I’m talking about until I actually show them how it is done.” (Ref)

The medium of reduction lino cut lends itself towards clear-cut lines creating sharp black outlines which emphasises the sharpness of the thorns, and the sharpness of the foliage in the foreground. The composition has a horizontal emphasis focused on the line of five children walking with purpose through the thorny bush. There is little depth in the artwork with the focus on the horizontal. Even the sky is treated in a decorative manner rather than an attempt to indicate depth.

The artwork is divided into three sections; the sky, the line of children and the thorny bush. The strong horizontal lines are broken up by the sharp but decorative lines of the grasses, plants and thorny bushes, and in the sky by the strong zig-zag lines, broken-up colour and speckled patterned texture.

He uses a limited palette of colours; soft browns, ochres and blue-greys, with splashes of white, which also reflects the harsh conditions of the children.

The figures of the children are simplified and angular, so that they almost appear like African woodcarvings. The African ethnic feel is especially strong in decorative patterning of the girls’ dresses. There are no soft lines which perhaps reflects the harshness of the conditions the children faces in order to receive their education. Even the grasses and the plants in the foreground feels as if they are rather dry and prickly, than soft. Yet, the children seems oblivious to ” the thorns on their path” to education, and the long walk, rather it appears that they are so focused on their goal, nothing else matters.This is emphasized as they are all focusing forward and the lines in the foliage also bends towards the same direction.

The general simplification of forms and decorative use of line helps to give the overall impression that Some Pathways to Education lies Between Thorns, could very well be an illustration for a children’s book, which lends and ironic element to the theme, as many children under Apartheid would not even have access to books.

Peter Clarke

Before the Storm = koki on paper – 1961

Peter Clarke’s work shows the hardships and suffering of the coloured
community in Cape Town. The Group Areas Act led to the relocation of many
coloured communities to the Cape Flats in areas such as Atlantis, Ocean
View, etc. These sandy areas were located far from their jobs and led to
displaced communities. In this work a young boy (focal point), is the largest
figure is playing a flute amidst a field of Arum lilies. The three white arum lilies
in the foreground bring sharpness to the front and encircled him. In the
background simple houses are painted of the disadvantaged community.
Aerial perspective is created by the smaller figures Two figures, a dog, a
wagon, and a piece of wood is shown in the background.
Clarke gives dignity to the boy playing the flute – it is as if the music carries
him away from the mundane hardship of his everyday life. There is a strong
awareness of modern international styles in his works which is seen in the
stylisation and simplification of his shapes. The angularity in the shapes
shows an expressionistic influence. Everything is stripped down to basic
shapes without much detail. The colour is subtle, mostly greens, blues and
browns. His clothes form a contrast between the cool blue shirt and warm
yellow shorts. There is a dreamlike atmosphere. Expressionism, hard
outlines, etched shapes/stylized-simplified

Peter Clarke

Flute Music 1961


Abandoned House, 1982, Linocut

Wood gatherers - 1967

Wood gatherers – 1967

Ruined Houses at Simons Town

Peter Clarke, Afrika which way?, 1978. Gouache and collage

Afrika which way? Shows a boy, thorn bushes, birds freed  from a cage by the boy, and a wall with graffiti.  The names that appear on the  wall – Cabral, Luthuli, Kenyatta, Nkrumah and Nyerere.  Also written on the wall are the  names of the European colonial powers – France, Britain, Belgium and Portugal.

Among the slogans on the wall is “We shall overcome”, the title of a freedom song that was sometimes sung during the South African struggle for liberation. 

Bibliography and Further Reading

Art Times


Great SA Art Masters Series – Peter Clark


Interview with Peter Clarke

Peter Clarke introduces For Some the Pathway to Education Lies Between Thorns

Royal African Society

South African Creatives

Standard Bank Learner Resources on the Art of Peter Clarke

South African History Online

Gerard Sekoto

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

Short Biography

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.

Geral Sekoto

Interior Sophiatown 1939

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.

Dancing Senegalese Figures 1967


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).

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.

Yellow Houses – Sophiatown 1940

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.

sekota-milkman  1945 - 7

Milkman 1945 – 47

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.

Prison Yard 1944

Prison Yard 1944

Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Berlin Street, 1913

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:

Song of the Pick (1946-47)

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.

Sixpence a Door (1946 – 47)

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.

Prayer in Church 1945 - 1947

Prayer in Church 1945 – 1947

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.

Self Portrait 1947

Key words for Sekoto: Social-Realism, Romantic-Realism, Figurative-expressionism, distorted perspective, stylized figures, bright colour



Arrested Motion

Esme Berman – Painting in South Africa, 1993, Southern Book Publishers

Drawing at Duke

Johans Borman Fine Art

John Peffer, Art and the End of Apartheid

Juan Carlos Boveri

Power point


Visual Art Notes – Annaliese