12 May 2006
In 1940 a painting by Gerard Sekoto, one South Africa’s most critically acclaimed artists, was bought by the Johannesburg Art Gallery – the first work by a black person to be exhibited there. When Sekoto went to see his painting, he wasn’t allowed entry. He had to pretend to be a cleaner to get in.
On Tuesday another painting, a self-portrait and probably Sekoto’s most famous work, was sold for a record £117 600 (R1.38-million) at by Bonhams auctioneers in London. This is 10 times the initial estimate of up to £18 000 (R210 000) and smashes the previous world auction record price for a Sekoto painting of about £31 000 (R363 000), according to Business Day.
The self-portrait, an oil on canvas board measuring 45.7 x 35.6 inches, was painted in October 1947, shortly before Sekoto left South Africa to spend the rest of his life in exile in Paris. It was acquired from the artist by a Mr J Zurnamer, in whose family it remained until the auction.
“What you are reading from my expression is not fear, but mostly mistrust and deep agony about contradicting attitudes amongst people,” Sekoto said of the painting.
“I do not have a particular fear, but am looking into the future of our country with much anxiety, yet fully determined to live this life as everybody does – through using one’s own personal walking sticks.”
Two other Sekoto paintings were also sold at the Bonhams auction: Portrait of Woman with Downcast Eyes went for £9 500 (R111 380) plus tax and The Blue Beret for £17 000 (R200 000) plus tax.
An urban artist
Gerard Sekoto was born on 9 December 1913 at Botshabelo mission, near Middleberg in Mpumulanga, and he died in Paris in 1993. He started drawing at an early age but did not have access to colour pencils until he was a teenager. The introduction to colour revolutionised his work.
He trained to become a teacher at the Diocesan Teachers Training College in Pietersburg and, on graduating, taught at a local school for four years.
In 1938, at the age of 25, he left for Johannesburg to become an artist. He lived with relatives in Sophiatown, a Johannesburg township. Life there provided him with his subject matter – he painted urban images of active scenes in the community in bold colours in an expressionist style. He held his first solo exhibition in 1939.
It was Sekoto’s ambition to visit Paris, then the centre of the art world, and in 1947 he began a lifetime of exile in France. The first years in Paris were hard, and Sekoto had to make ends meet as a jazz musician.
His paintings became political in the 1970s. In 1989 the Johannesburg Art Gallery honoured him with a retrospective exhibition and the University of Witwatersrand with an honorary doctorate.
Sekoto is recognised as the pioneer of urban black art and social realism. He broke the convention of “native” studies that had preceded his work. He used strong bright colours and unusual perspectives to convey the lively vitality and spontaneity of urban street life despite the hardship of life in Sophiatown and District Six.
Sekoto’s work is highly sought after by collectors, and is included in collections at the Durban Art Gallery, Johannesburg Art Gallery, Pretoria Art Museum, South African National Gallery, Fort Hare and the William Humphreys Art Gallery.