Obituary: Gerard Sekoto

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The Independent Online
Gerard Sekoto, painter: born Botshabelo, Transvaal 9 December 1913; died near Paris 19 March 1993.

GERARD SEKOTO is widely regarded as a pioneer figure in modern South African art. This is a comparatively recent perception, consonant with the current rewriting of South African art history, which now recognises what has come to be called the 'Neglected Tradition' - the contribution by the country's black artists.

Sekoto has attained near-mythic status as the exiled father of black painting in South Africa. As such he has come to constitute a role-model for aspirant black artists. There is some irony in this. To begin with it is only recently that young black artists have been able to have first-hand experience of his work. The retrospective exhibition organised by the Johannesburg Art Gallery and which toured the country between 1989 and 1990 was the first occasion for broad public contact with his work, specially work of his earlier period, by far the stronger part of his output. This work is largely in private ownership - and in a South African context this means, inevitably, that small group of middle-class white patrons who were sufficiently sympathetic and had the means to acquire works by a comparatively unknown black painter.

Sekoto was born in 1913 at the Mission station at Botshabelo near Middelburg, Transvaal, where his father combined the roles of evangelist, teacher and builder. Sekoto's introduction to art took the time-honoured form, practised by so many rural black children, of modelling animals in clay. This he extended into pencil and crayon drawings, a talent sceptically but good-humouredly accepted by his family. His primary education culminated in the first formal recognition of his artistic skill - five shillings and a Bible for the design of the Botshabelo School badge. His secondary education at the Diocesan Teacher's Training College, Grace Dieu, near Pietersburg, allowed for a course in drawing. But there was a characteristic lack of resources. As Sister Francis Clare, a teacher at the college, observed: 'Native education, like native clothing, is largely outfitted with second-hand cast-offs.'

Sekoto went on to teach at Khaiso School, a fellow Anglican institution where he taught at a primary level and practised his own sketching during lessons. He seems already to have resolved to teach for a limited period while saving money to buy art materials. A prize award in an art competition organised by Fort Hare University College stiffened his resolve. In 1938 he moved to Johannesburg to devote himself to art. It was a brave decision, for which there was scarcely any precedent. He found moral support as well as temporary employment at St Peter's Secondary School in Rosettenville, where through Brother Roger Castle he was encouraged to submit work to the South African Academy exhibition in 1939. Sekoto's work earned the surprised attention of at least one Afrikaans newspaper for his 'grasp of colour and composition'.

During the next few years Sekoto's paintings of township life were to continue to receive patronising attention from what passed for newspaper criticism but, more importantly, he gained recognition from fellow artists such as the Johannesburg painter Judith Gluckman and the Cape Town sculptor Lippy Lipshitz. His move to Cape Town in 1942 saw him readily accepted by the progressively minded artists of the New Group.

Sekoto's career is irresistibly, and sadly, divisible in two parts: the first is his South African period (Johannesburg 1938-42, Cape Town 1942-47); the second is that of his voluntary exile in Paris from 1947 onwards, where his output under stress of ill-health effectively tailed off in the late 1980s. There is a stark difference in the quality of the work before and after his decision to move to Paris. Most commentators on his work have been reluctant to face the fact that the Paris works, and even those he did on a visit to Senegal (1966-67), lack the strength, the conviction, the authenticity of the earlier work.

This is so often the tragedy of the exile. Sekoto's paintings of the townships around Johannesburg, specifically Sophiatown, have a rooted quality. This derives from an identification based on close, unsentimentalised observation. It is a question of being there. The Paris works, especially those that recapitulate the earlier township themes, are not about being, but remembering. But the quality of remembering is not sharp- focused. Instead it is nostalgically soft; the African khaki-browns and greens become transfused with a kind of purple-blue haze. Stylistically the work becomes schematised. The solid, densely worked, strongly felt quality of the figures of the early work becomes almost caricatured, relying for coherence on crude outline imposed over mildly abstracted planes. The qualities of the portraits, so immediate and compelling in the South African period, are no longer those of real people - the artist's friends, the artist's family - but generalised 'African' types. It is as though Sekoto, in self-imposed exile, came to view Africa in a way not too different from the stereotyped colonial view of picturesque figures in an exotic landscape.

This is a bitter irony indeed. It is simplistic to see Sekoto's reasons for leaving as essentially political. In later years he wrote: 'I an not a political exile. I came on my own to stay here and had never dreamed of gold except spiritual gold.' Elsewhere he stated that he went to Paris to drink of its 'fountain of a long-lived culture and the arts'.

These are familiar enough reasons why artists leave the periphery of the art world to seek out its centre. In Sekoto's case, being black in a provincial society hamstrung by racial prejudice, the impulse to leave is all the more understandable. But, for Sekoto, the centre did not hold. It is a moot point whether his lack of formal art- training contributed to his inability to adapt his art to a foreign milieu. The uncomfortable fact is that he was unable to engage with his new environment on anything other than a superficial level. He resorted instead to a recapitulation of earlier African motifs; and this led, sadly, to pastiche - and even to self-parody.

His reputation must rest on the early work. But there is enough of that - fresh, vigorous and lit by a genuine vision - to make it endure.

(Photograph omitted)