(1913 – 1993)
Born in 1913 at the Lutheran Mission Station in Botshabelo near Middelburg in the Eastern Transvaal, Sekoto is widely regarded not just as the pioneer of urban black art in South Africa, but also as one of the father’s of modern South African art in general.
Sekoto was educated at a school in Wonderhoek, established by his father, a priest and teacher. In the early 1930s Sekoto studied teaching at the Diocesan College and from 1934-38 he taught at the Khaiso Sceondary School in Pietersburg. It was at Khaiso that Sekoto met Ernest Mancoba, who did much to encourage Sekoto’s fledgling artistic career.
In 1938, Sekoto won second prize at the South African Bantu Art Exhibition, a national art competition organised by Ester Bedford at the University of Fort Hare. It was this accolade that encouraged him to relocate to Sophiatown, Johannesburg, to pursue painting full time.
Sekoto started exhibiting his work shortly after arriving in Sophiatown and managed to build a good reputation amongst those in the Johannesburg art scene. During the four years Sekoto spent in Sophiatown he produced work depicting the lifestyle and scenery observed in the townships. After a few years however, Sekoto grew unhappy with what he deemed the claustrophobic atmosphere of the city. Following a successful solo exhibition at the Gainsborough Gallery in 1942 he moved to the Distric Six area of Cape Town.
It was here that Sekoto joined the ‘New Group’, members of which exhibted around the country. His work from the early 1940s was greatly influenced by the hardships endured by many in the poorer areas of District Six. It was during this period that Sekoto developed his distinctive style.
Following this successful stint in Cape Town, Sekoto moved back to Transvall in 1945 to the black township of Eastwood, Pretoria. Over the next two years he had many successful exhibitions. Notable amongst which were solo-shows at Christie’s Gallery in Pretoria and the Gainsborough Gallery in Johannesburg.
In 1947 Sekoto used the proceeds from these exhibitions to travel to Paris, this self-imposed exile coinciding with the coming to power of the Afrikaner Nationalist party. Sekoto felt that the ever increasing lack of freedom coupled with the social, economic and cultural environment of the time would not provide fertile ground for him to develop as an artist.
Soon after his arrival in Paris Sekoto started working as a pianist at the popular nightspot L’Echelle de Jacob (Jacob’s Ladder). Whilst in Paris Sekoto continued to paint and to rework many of his earlier subjects and themes. He also participated in exhibitions in Belgium, Holland and Paris as well as the Overseas Exhibition of South African Art at the Tate Gallery London, along 53 white South African artists.
The 1960s saw Sekoto exhibit in USA and Europe and in 1968, he was awarded a diploma by the jury of the ‘XIX Grand Prix International de Peinture de Deauville’. His work from the 1970s took on a political edge in response to apartheid in his native country.
In 1989 the Johannesburg Art Gallery organised a large exhibition of his work, titled ‘Gerard Sekoto : Unsevered Ties’. In the preface to the exhibition catalogue, Lesley Spiro writes: “Gerard Sekoto is undoubtedly one of the pioneers of modern South African art. However, partly because of his long exile and partly because of the Eurocentric orientations in South African art history, he has not received the recognition in this country that he deserves.”
Towards the end of his life Sekoto was granted numerous honours and continued to live and work in Paris until his death in 1993.