“Art is the spark, the illumination which is socially significant for it brings about understanding.”
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. 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.
• Manganyi, N.C. (1996). A Black Man Called Sekoto, Johannesburg: Witwatersrand University Press.
• Anonymous pamphlet, (2003?). ‘About Gerard Sekoto’s music’, (advertising the playing of his music, at the Pretoria Art Museum on the 10th anniversary of his death, by The Blue Heads, a group of 9 musicians managed by Barbara Lindop, one of Sekoto’s biographers)
• Sack, S. (1988). The Neglected Tradition, Johannesburg: Johannesburg Art Gallery.
• Gerard Sekoto: SA\’s artistic icon, 3 June 2004 [Accessed 12 March 2009]
• Gerard Sekoto: The townships of Paris [Online]: Available at: culturebase.net profile [Accessed 12 March 2009]
• Gerard Sekoto mural unveiled in Sophiatown – Lucille Davie, October 6, 2004
– See more at: http://www.sahistory.org.za/people/jan-gerard-sekoto#sthash.4HVfdoX5.dpuf