“Gerard Sekoto portrayed the dignity of life in the black communities of South Africa. The black artist represented his compatriots with the status and humanity they deserved at the time, but which the Apartheid regime did not allow them,” says Leigh Leyde, cataloger at Strauss & Co. “The artist is well known in the art community immediately, but unfortunately it is not so recognized nationally and internationally among the general public”, he comments.
hot african art
There is a growing interest in contemporary Pan-African art, bolstered by the various art exhibitions focusing on modern and contemporary Pan-African artists. “When We See Us: A Century of Black Figuration in Painting”, recently opened at the Zeitz Museum of Contemporary African Art in Cape Town, and in London “In the Black Fantastic” at London’s Hayward Gallery garnered rave reviews. In keeping with the latest trends in the international art market, Strauss & Co is planning a non-commercial exhibition dedicated to internationally renowned South African modernist sculptors Ezrom Legae and Sydney Kumalo later in 2023. The art world’s growing appetite for the African art shines in the spotlight. on African modernists, who in the past were passed over in favor of their European peers. Art lovers and collectors are now turning their attention to African modernist pioneers such as Nigerian painter and sculptor Ben Enwonwu, Sudanese painter Ibrahim El-Salahi, and our South African artists Ernest Mancoba and Sekoto.
Among black African modernists, art historians consider Sekoto to be one of the pioneers. “Her paintings of him, rich in color and infused with a light that seems to shine from within, suggest a sense of calm. This, despite the challenges this artist must have endured under apartheid,” says Christine Mullen Kreamer, deputy director and chief curator of the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of African Art, affirming the artist’s international status as one of the major African artists. “In South Africa, he was the first black artist whose work was purchased by the Johannesburg Art Gallery in 1940, a painting called “Yellow Houses,” Leyde adds.
The South African years
Sekoto was born in Botshabelo in Mpumalanga in 1913 and worked as a teacher until 1939. He then moved to Johannesburg to pursue a career as an artist, living in the vibrant multiracial communities of Johannesburg’s Sophiatown and Cape Town’s District Six. The paintings that Sekoto produced between 1945 and 1947, between his arrival at Eastwood on the outskirts of Pretoria and his departure for France, represent the high point of his artistic career. From this time is “Song of the Peak” (1946), one of his best-known works. Art historians refer to this time as Sekoto’s “Eastwood Period”. “It was a time when he took his understanding of color and form to new heights, when he seemed to further sharpen his already remarkable sense of mood and movement,” Sekoto scholar Lesley Spiro notes in the catalog for the first Sekoto’s great retrospective exhibition. , held at the Johannesburg Art Gallery in 1989.
Although at first glance Sekoto’s artworks may seem like a simple bucolic idyll, they also contain strong sociopolitical commentary on the plight of blacks during the apartheid regime. “His art provided a visual representation of life in South Africa, particularly for non-whites and the injustice and oppression of their daily lives due to sociopolitical circumstances,” says Arisha Maharaj, art specialist at Strauss & Co. He is well known for his use of bold, expressionistic colors and repetition of figures, giving his paintings an almost rhythmic musical quality.
The Paris Years
In 1947 he went into exile in Paris, never to return to his native country. Paris in the 1950s and 1960s was a center of Afrocentrism and black consciousness. African modes of thought and culture flourished among expatriates from the former French colonies as an antidote to the long tradition of European cultural domination. In 1966 Leopold Senghor, former President of Senegal and an African poet, invited Sekoto to contribute to the First Festival of Black Artists. “What is interesting about Gerard’s work during his exile in Paris is the subject matter: although he may have been directly inspired by the vibrant and bustling Parisian art scene, he always returned to the street scenes of his native country, says Leyde. “Although Sekoto is best known for his oil paintings, he first mastered watercolor when he was still teaching. “Some of his most important works are in watercolor,” he comments. But Paris also had his traps. South African author Andre P Brink described Sekoto as one of the great libertines of Paris, a brilliant jazz musician who had gotten drunk to death in Montmartre…’ He spent time in a mental institution on the outskirts of Paris and When his life partner, Marthe Baillon, died in 1976, the artist was left destitute for not having left Baillon a will. Sekoto would remain in France until his death in 1993.
Sekoto and the art market
Sekoto’s paintings sell for millions of rand at international auctions: a British auction house set a world record in 2011 when “Yellow Houses, District Six” sold for £602,400 (approximately R7 million). Collectors covet his signature blue paints. Inspired by his travels in West Africa, Bonhams recently sold the oil painting “Three Children” for £126,300 (approximately £2.6 million) during its Modern and Contemporary African Art auction in October this year. Close to home, the artist has also done well in the secondary art market: Strauss and Co’s record for a Sekoto painting is R3 751 440, for “Woman in the Countryside” painted during his “Eastwood” period. Despite record prices at art auctions, he remains an accessible artist with prints and watercolors selling for between R20,000 and R50,000 at the most recent Strauss and Co. auctions.
“Sekoto is a great addition for any collector looking to add a pivotal African modernist to their art collection,” concludes Leyde.