|A self-portrait of Sekoto|
It shouldn’t be the case, but of all the images that lingers it is a snapshot of the entrance of a pedestrian Parisian bar. You can’t see much of the interior; a faux wooden bar counter tapers off into a dark abyss. Gerard Sekoto stepped into that void almost daily, during his last days.
“He drank from 12 to 12,” observes Barabara Lindop matter-of-factly as she flashes the photograph in front of me, before flitting across to another glass case where other documents alluding to the complex puzzle that was Sekoto’s life are on display.
It is now under scrutiny again in Song for Sekoto, a centenary – he was born in 1913 – retrospective at the Wits Art Museum (Wam). This particular vision of Sekoto is guided by Lindop, a trustee of the Gerard Sekoto foundation, who has compiled the catalogue and the archival material, and Mary-Jane Darroll who curated the art.
The women may be united in their obsession with Sekoto but for each it is sustained by different perspectives; Lindop is concerned with the details of Sekoto’s life and Darroll the “aesthetics of his work”. The two embody the different points of view from which an artist’s legacy is deconstructed and, in the context of a large show such as this, reconstructed.
The picture of Sekoto that emerges from Song for Sekoto is a familiar one. There are no revelations. What sets this exhibition apart from the 1989 retrospective held at the Johannesburg Art Gallery (Jag) and the 2006 show at the Standard Bank Gallery, which concentrated on the Paris years, is that this is the most comprehensive with more than 200 of his key artworks on show; including some of the Paris works, and a sizeable collection of documents that haven’t been available to the public.
Predictably, the tale of Sekoto’s life that emerges from the documents and artworks has a tragic bite. In a journal article for Presence Africaine in 1957 he details the difficulties of becoming an artist in apartheid South Africa, where he was barred from access to formal art education. The hand-written draft is displayed inside a glass case in the gallery, yet the surrounding artworks from the most prolific or admired periods of his career – the Sophiatown period from 1938 to 1942 and the Eastwood period from 1945 to 1947 – suggest that despite the limitations the state placed on his life and career he flourished and excelled. This may be part of the romance of Sekoto’s oeuvre; though during these periods he documented township life, subtly commenting on living conditions in a ghetto environment, the magnificence of the works themselves transcends the confines of the settings.
In other words the works don’t appear to be products of the places from which they hail. Yet, of course, because the paintings from these destinations are aesthetically pleasing there is a sense that he unwittingly romanticises township life. For it is clear from the development and character of the paintings from this era that while Sekoto was driven by social issues, his subject matter was a vehicle for formal experimentation.
He was clearly playing with chiaroscuro in works such as Four Figures at a Table (1941-2), which shows four card players gathered around a candle that bathes the scene in warm tones that contrast with the dark areas untouched by its glow. For Darroll this painting, which echoes similar scenes that Cezanne and Caravaggio rendered, shows Sekoto’s awareness of art history. The restrained socio-political undertones are vital for her too.
“He wasn’t just this domestic interior painter,” she says.
Generally, the value of work from the apartheid years is measured against its political content. Sekoto wasn’t quite the protest artist, though after Sharpeville in 1960 he attempted a rendering of that horrific massacre from afar while living in Paris.
In his renderings of township conditions he didn’t relay strife and hardship through contorted or distorted bodies in the expressionist manner that Dumile Feni embraced – artists would only arrive at that approach much later and it is one that hasn’t completely avoided criticism. Police appear in a few of Sekoto’s paintings, most notably in The Roundup (1939), but they are not involved in violent skirmishes. Sekoto seems largely to be registering their presence rather than the impact it may have had.
The matter-of-factness that defines his work evokes the documentary photographer’s mode, though he obviously surrendered to the pleasures of painterly flourishes.
In places his mode recalls the texture and vibrancy of Van Gogh’s portraits of peasant life. From the South African historical perspective these ordinary scenes demonstrate how a skewed system was normalised. Life went on and wasn’t always interrupted or poisoned by apartheid. This seems to coincide with a more recent, though controversial, trend to embrace artworks made during the apartheid era, which capture the everyday. For some this signals a transcendence of that pervasive system, minor triumphs in an otherwise twisted context, while others believe this only serves to lessen the horror, trauma or impact of apartheid.
Sekoto’s approach restored dignity to his subjects, proposes Darroll. Aside from portraits, he tended to depict his subjects from afar and often from behind – they were always anonymous. Could he have been naming a collective condition? It is all supposition; the writings on display which are intended to allow the artist “to speak for himself” articulate his distress and anger about the political situation rather than to discuss the motives behind his work. Displaying them alongside each other leads viewers to infer that a political motive was in fact driving his work.
There is a common criticism that biographical material pertaining to a black artist is often privileged over the content of his or her work. In the mainstream press there is a tendency to do so in depicting all artists as a way of making art more accessible to the public; it is easy and more entertaining to meditate on a personality and a narrative peppered with amusing anecdotes than to come to grips with the conflicting and sometimes highfalutin aspects of art. So, predictably, the biographical material or aspect to Song for Sekoto is thought to be the main attraction.
“This isn’t an academic exercise, we want people to know about Sekoto,” remarks Lindop. She is bent on making the artist a household name, as if Sekoto is a cause.
Darroll is more connected to the formal qualities of the works, so she has to “keep reminding myself that this isn’t an aesthetic exercise; it is after all about a man’s life, which you can’t judge in the same way”. For her the work speaks about his life in ways that documents can’t.
Documents pertaining to his years in France, from 1947 until his death in 1993, are confined to the mezzanine level. Here his less endearing artworks are displayed. Darroll doesn’t consider them his best, aesthetically. It is not an opinion she alone holds; the works produced in South Africa before his departure in the late 1940s fetch much higher sums at auction. Well, now that is; in 1986 Sekoto’s Proud Father went under the hammer for R9 000. Works from this time now sell for R9 million, according to a catalogue postscript by art dealer Warren Siebrits. He suggests the dramatic shift in the value of his work had something to do with the first Sekoto exhibition at Jag in 1989, but in truth the exhibition was reflective of changing attitudes to art produced by black artists and the beginning of a drive to (re)claim the work that had been overlooked during the apartheid era.
This large retrospective suggests that Sekoto’s canonisation isn’t complete. The curators may be holding on to his status as an “overlooked artist” – it’s a romantic ideal, particularly where art is concerned. However, this designation is an easy fit for Sekoto who suffered because of his race in his country of birth and struggled to gain recognition in France. That Darroll and Lindop struggled to secure funding for the retrospective through local arts funding channels suggests that the artist continues to be overlooked - the exhibition and restoration of some of the artists' works was largely funded by Merrill Lynch, a subsidiary of Bank America. Paul Mashatile, the minister of Arts and Culture, only agreed to open the exhibition after Liza Essers, owner of the Goodman Gallery, put a call through to him and made a request, according to Darroll.
Sekoto’s outcast status seems to have been amplified in Paris.
“He had huge aims when he arrived there. But I think when he was there he wasn’t sure what kind of work to make,” observes Darroll. His lack of formal training made it difficult “to engage with his new environment” suggests Neville Dubow in a dated article in a glass case.
The works from this period show him to be experimenting in the modernist vein; reducing forms via a Europeanised conception of African abstraction. This is most notable in recurring portraits of an African woman’s bust rendered in blue tones, garnering the “blue head” sobriquet. In a way he was channelling Africa through the European gaze.
You could call this era his blue period. It also includes a striking drawing of a man lighting a cigarette, Homme fumant une cigarette (1988-93), defined by various azure shades. This stance is echoed in several drawings.
“He couldn’t get the pose right. He was struggling at this point,” suggests Lindop. This period was “blue” for other reasons too. Though it was self-imposed, he was exiled from his family, his country, and he painted less. In France he spent more time behind a piano, making a living as a musician. It was through this preoccupation that his weakness for booze developed. But it is possible too that the music, the heady nightlife he adopted, offered a respite from the crisis he was experiencing as an artist.
Paris didn’t deliver the dream he might have imagined. Or at least this is how his life story is packaged. This perspective gives a certain weight to the banality of the photograph of the Parisian bar, where Sekoto spent his last days. The place marks the nadir of a thrilling story arc, where Sekoto came so close to greatness – one display maps a tentative link to Rainer Maria Rilke, the Austrian poet, and Lindop is quick to mention that he swapped works with Picasso.
The art he produced in France may not have been gripping or in tune with what artists there were up to at the time, but that doesn’t necessarily mean his life had somehow failed. Despite her interest in Sekoto’s work rather than his life, Darroll draws attention to this fact. Yet there is a sense that the perceived failure that marked his Paris years is part of his appeal as an art icon; there is something more poignant about a tragedy – writers, the media revel in it – and certainly, it adds more value to the works he produced in South Africa. This may also account for the manner in which the downward spiral his life is thought to have taken isn’t hidden from view and is just as proudly advertised at this show. This seems out of sync with a determined effort to canonise him. Yet his perceived decline is always linked to forces outside of himself that were beyond his control. This could be the truth, but we will never know.
Song for Sekoto is showing at the Wits Art Museum until June 2