Sekoto comes home to South Africa

The Famous Idea Trading Company
04/13/2013 10:43:30

SONG FOR SEKOTO – Gerard Sekoto 1913-2013 will be presented at the Wits Art Museum (WAM) in Johannesburg from 26 April to 2 June 2013.

South African businesses continue to show their support of the local arts scene, with the staging of an exhibition of legendary South African artist Gerard Sekoto’s work, life and times. SONG FOR SEKOTO – Gerard Sekoto 1913-2013 will be presented at the Wits Art Museum (WAM) in Johannesburg from 26 April to 2 June 2013, in celebration of the centenary of the artist’s birth.

The works have been made available by the Gerard Sekoto Foundation, and the exhibition is sponsored by Merrill Lynch, a subsidiary of Bank of America Corporation (Merrill Lynch), with support from BHP Billiton, Business and Arts South Africa, Webber Wentzel and the National Lotteries Distribution Trust Fund.

In addition, Bank of America Merrill Lynch has supported the conservation of 10 of Sekoto’s key artworks as part of the company’s Art Conservation Project (ACP) and these works will be included as part of the Sekoto exhibition. The company’s highly regarded and unique conservation project provides grants for the restoration of paintings, sculptures and archaeological or architectural pieces that are significant to the cultural heritage of a country or region, or important to the history of art, in order to preserve them for future generations.

Jan Gerard Sekoto was born on 9 September 1913 in Botshabelo – a mission station established by German missionaries amongst the Pedi community in the Middelburg district of the then Eastern Transvaal (now Mpumalanga). 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, established by his father who was a 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 teaching at the Diocesan Training College near Pietersburg.

Sekoto was a talented artist, not only renowned and respected for his two-dimensional art but also for his ability to play several musical instruments. In music as in visual art, Sekoto found a way to combine socialising with serious creative work, a habit he kept throughout his life. As the son of a missionary he grew up with music as part of his life. He was introduced to the family harmonium at an early age and went on to compose his own musical works.

Sekoto’s involvement in the arts is a direct product of his life experiences. His journey into art began when he was a teacher at Khaiso Secondary School near Pietersburg (1934-1938). Sekoto and his colleagues Louis Makenna, Nimrod Ndelele and Ernest Mancoba were a highly gifted and creative foursome who enriched one another’s lives, and the intellectual and artistic life of their school. It was in 1938 that Mancoba encouraged Sekoto’s interest in art which resulted in him entering a national art competition organised by Ester Bedford at the University of Fort Hare, where he won second prize. This marked the beginning of a longer journey. Sekoto left the teaching profession and in 1939 began painting full-time from his new base of Sophiatown.

Sekoto befriended artists Alexis Preller and Judith Glukman, who taught him to work in oil, and within a short time he had started exhibiting his work and earned a reputation within the Johannesburg art scene. However, his dissatisfaction with the racial and claustrophobic environment of Johannesburg saw him move to District Six in Cape Town from 1942 – a period that was to be one of his most productive – and saw the development of his distinctive style.

In 1945, Sekoto moved back to the Transvaal (Mpumalanga), to the township of Eastwood in Pretoria where he held a number of successful exhibitions in the years that followed. Before long he began to make plans to move abroad and in 1947, just before the Afrikaner Nationalist Party came to power, 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. He felt that the social, economic and cultural context at the time was not conducive to his proper establishment as an artist. In Paris, Sekoto was confronted with the reality of a world where black and white people could coexist indifferent to race, forming his realisation that South Africa was a country conditioned by colonial racism. He began to take drawing lessons at L’Académie de la Grande Chaumière, and soon enough made the acquaintance of other foreign workers and students, including those who lived in Saint-Germain-des-Prés, where he moved in early 1948.

Sekoto’s musical abilities were what earned him a living in Saint-Germain. He was employed as a pianist at L’échelle de Jacob (Jacob’s ladder), a trendy nightclub/bar reopened for business after the war where he played jazz and sang ‘Negro Spirituals’ (popular French songs of the period) and Harry Belafonte compositions. Between 1956 and 1960 several of his pieces were published by Les Editions Musicales. Sekoto composed 29 songs, mostly excessively poignant, recalling the loneliness of living in exile and displaying the inordinate courage of someone battling to survive in a foreign cultural environment.

In 1949, along with 53 white South African artists, Sekoto joined the Overseas Exhibition of South African Art at the Tate Gallery in London, and so began his international acceptance. However, it was not until his acquaintance with local supporters including Raymond de Cardonne and Jean Castel that his reputation was established. The relationships enabled him to join the art scene in the Rue des Grands Augustins. He held several exhibitions in Paris, some more successful than others. In 1961, his work was exhibited at the Harmon Foundation of New York and was selected for a UNESCO exhibition for the conference on Africa and Contemporary Civilization in Venice.

Sekoto’s first significant local exhibition since he moved abroad was in 1963. During this year 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. Here, he re-established his emotional and cultural links with Africa, and strengthened his identity. It was during this time that the increasingly radical South African government revoked his passport, making his exile mandatory. He returned to Paris only after learning of the injury of his friend and lover Madame Martha Baillon.

In 1968, Sekoto was awarded a diploma by the jury of the ‘XIX Grand Prix International de Peinture de Deauville’ and in 1978, was acclaimed as “our first great African Impressionist” for his homage to Steve Biko. After the death of his companion and landowner Martha Baillon, Sekoto struggled financially, and suffered from poor health. Despite this he continued to exhibit his work periodically and on 13 December 1989, Sekoto received an honorary doctorate from the University of the Witwatersrand. He passed away on 20 March 1993.

SONG FOR SEKOTO, Gerard Sekoto 1913-2013, will be showing at WAM, corner Jan Smuts and Jorissen Streets, Braamfontein, Johannesburg from 26 April to 2 June 2013. Opening hours: Wednesday to Sunday, 10am – 4pm. The Gallery can be contacted on 011 717 1365 or  Admission is free.


The Gerard Sekoto Foundation was established in 1993 for the sole purpose of trying to fulfil the wishes of Mr Sekoto, as expressed in his will. For the past 20 years the trustees of The Gerard Sekoto Foundation have worked pro bono towards these requests.

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Business and Arts South Africa (BASA)

Business and Arts South Africa is an internationally recognised South African Development agency which incorporates the arts into, and contributes to, corporates commercial success. With a suite of integrated programes BASA encourages mutually beneficial partnerships between business and the arts. It was founded in 1997 as a joint initiative of government and the business sector to secure the future development of the arts industry in South Africa, through increased corporatesector involvement. Established as a non-profit company BASA is accountable to both government and its business members.

Wits Arts Museum (WAM) was launched in 2012 and is home to an extraordinary collection of African art, including contemporary and historical art from South Africa and art from West and Central Africa. It hosts a dynamic program of events and art exhibitions. The Museum is one of Johannesburg's premier tourist attractions, along with the Apartheid Museum and Constitution Hill. It is part of the Wits University Cultural Precinct, just three blocks from Nelson Mandela Bridge. WAM is in the hip, regenerating area of Braamfontein, which is also home to many students, interesting shops and places to eat. WAM's cafe is a fun place to meet friends and enjoy delicious food and coffee. Account:
Gilly Hemphill
The Famous Idea
011 446 7061/46
082 820 8584
The Gerard Sekoto Foundation
Related Venue:
Wits Arts Museum, Cnr Jan Smuts and Jorissen Street Braamfontein Johannesburg Gauteng South Africa