Return from exile

Two years ago Henri Vergon visited the apartment of an 85-year-old woman living in Saint-Germain-des-Prés, Paris’s bohemian Latin Quarter, and found a white refuse bag bulging with private drawings, photographs, notes and personal letters belonging to South African artist Gerard Sekoto.

For the next two weeks some of the contents of this bag will be exhibited at Afronova, Vergon’s Newtown gallery, as the first step in a long-term project of research, documentation and display intended to build a publicly accessible archive of Sekoto’s life and work in Paris.

The exhibition, titled Exiles, shows a selection of drawings, photographs and letters and is just a taste of the collection, which is yet to be formally catalogued. Besides the uncounted photographs and bits of personal paraphernalia, a partial tally shows that the collection contains more than 270 drawings and painting sketches, 140 of which have been selected for the exhibition.

One of these is the 10th and final piece in Sekoto’s Recollections of Sharpeville watercolour series, dated 1960. The first nine were bought by the department of arts and culture at a Bonhams auction in December 2006 and are on permanent loan to the South African National Gallery (Sang).

Two major collections of Sekoto’s works exist in South Africa, one at Sang and the other at Wits University. Vergon’s find fills in many of the gaps in these archives, with extensive evidence of Sekoto’s stylistic experimentation and development throughout the three geographical periods into which his career has been divided (South African townships, Casamance in Sengal and Paris). Sekoto scholar Barbara Lindop describes this collection in her essay Secrets of the Heart as “a crucial key to unlocking concealed secrets in our knowledge of Sekoto’s life in exile”.

The expansion of this historical archive by South African researchers is increasingly threatened by Sekoto’s recent record hammer prices at international auctions. Vergon says: “Bonhams really wanted [the collection], and when I went to see the elderly woman at her apartment it was not like I could pull out millions or euros. She knew she would get a better price from Bonhams than I could give her. I explained to her that it was heritage. I wanted her to be fully aware of its historical and artistic importance. I am quite proud that I managed to save it from being dispersed in London and managed to bring it back intact.”

The collection has been sold to Spier, which Vergon describes as an organisation that “really has a vision of preserving heritage in South Africa”, and will be housed in its entirety at the Spier Africa Centre in the Western Cape.

Vergon predicts that the discovery of what is henceforth to be called the “Spier Collection” will require that parts of Sekoto’s official history are rewritten as new biographical information is unearthed. A number of long-term research goals have been pinned to the collection.

Vergon intimates that Spier will look to appoint an academic scholar to research it extensively, with a view to presenting an exhaustive and thoroughly documented exhibition in the coming years.

Exiles opens on September 19 at 6pm. Outside the gallery, the Blue Heads ensemble will perform Sekoto’s musical compositions from 6pm to 8pm. The exhibition is accompanied by a catalogue featuring illustrations of selected works from the exhibition and essays by Henri Vergon, Christine Eyene and Barbara Lindop

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