Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Packaging a life: Gerard Sekoto

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.