Song for Sekoto: Duet of politics and money

It is interesting to see who has laid claim to the legacy of Gerard Sekoto, now the subject of a massive exhibition commemorating his 100th birthday.

It is interesting to see who has laid claim to the legacy of Gerard Sekoto, now the subject of a massive exhibition commemorating his 100th birthday.

Sekoto’s work, today, is the prize acquisition of the corporate world, a national treasure, a conversation piece of the rich, a potential fortune on auction and an insurance nightmare for any exhibitor hoping to show his art.

Sekoto, the almost-outsider ­artist who ran away from his country in 1947, today seems to be everything that he was not.

There was a time, though, when Sekoto’s imagery was seen as an integral part of popular struggle culture, something that may have amused him since he was never part of the organised exile community.

  • See a slideshow of works from the show here

In Johannesburg in the turbulent 1980s, I recall a postcard reproduction of his 1946 painting Song of the Pick that imagined the dignified plight of street labourers working in unison under the watchful eye of a white foreman. I remember the postcard, crudely stuck to Yeoville fridges, or pinned to the workplace notice boards of nongovernmental organisation workers and struggle activists in the period of great anti-apartheid strife.

Sekoto’s painting was a reimagining of photographer Andrew Goldie’s black-and-white shot of anonymous black workers in an urban setting. According to artist Mzuzile Mduduzi Xakaza, in an essay in the catalogue for the exhibition, the iconic painting was the result of a conscious effort by the artist to reconstruct the power relations between the white boss and black workers of the day.

“In Goldie’s version, the workers look weak; they appear overwhelmed by the moment of toil. The white boss is in total control of his workers,” Xakaza writes.

“By contrast, in Sekoto’s version, the white boss stands in front of the workers, who engage in their task nobly. They are all endowed with athletic bodies and appear strong … the white boss who stands in front of the workers seems threatened by the advancing pick-wielding men.”

Although the white boss in the painting is a rumpled, pipe-smoking wimp, marvelling at the machine-like workers, it should not be presumed that Sekoto was a painter who produced revolutionary imagery. But, what with the need for an art that would respectably illustrate apartheid divisions, Sekoto’s work began to fill a gap.

Yet two things make his work alluring and enduring: his period situations and the complex environments he constructed.

People pushing to get off trains in overcrowded conditions, protecting frightened children; waiting for hours for public transport to arrive; a woman at a cupboard empty of supplies; a platoon of black prisoners being marched by guards; poor people whiling away the hours in front of dilapidated houses — these were just some of Sekoto’s human dramas that went beyond mere depictions of fists, chains, AK-47s and factory cogs that apartheid’s victim-artists became known for.

Jumping in time to the present day, we now encounter an evolved Sekoto on show in the gallery space.

Collective ownership of the legacy
Song of the Pick is the first work one sees at the entrance to the Wits Art Museum where Song for Sekoto is showing until June. It hangs beside a logo of the sponsor, BHP Billiton, which also happens to be the picture’s owner. Next to the work are various other renderings of the same subject: a drawing from 1960 and an angular, more abstract painting from 1978.

At the exhibition’s very crowded opening on April 25 there was a sense of collective ownership of the Sekoto legacy. The new order consists of a partnership between the corporate world personified by people such as BHP Billiton chairperson Xolani Mkhwanazi, Arts ­Minister Paul Mashatile, representing the state, and Themba Wakashe, a former arts department director ­general who now chairs the Sekoto Foundation.

Here was the familiar “unholy” alliance between art, politics and money. And, at the end of the day, it is only this that can get such a mammoth undertaking off the ground.

The other faction that milled about proudly was made up of the owners of Sekoto’s paintings who had loaned their precious assets for the show. In a surprise twist, one, who shall remain anonymous, confessed to me that her Sekoto was up for sale. Then she pointed out her art dealer, who was busy working the exhibition floor. How much more of the show was being flogged, I wondered? An exhibition of this kind, surely, provides ample opportunity for investors to make comparisons and put offers on the table.

The night before, there was an exclusive opening for the corporate sponsors, including Merrill Lynch, a subsidiary of Bank of America ­Corporation. In our press packs, we received a booklet from Merrill Lynch showcasing the bank’s corporate social investment project that involves the restoration of historical art across the world. A press release informs that the bank will be aiding in the conservation of 10 key works by Sekoto, the titles of which will be announced in June.

At the opening, there was, understandably, a fair amount of backslapping between local officials and corporate representatives. Mashatile congratulated both Wakashe and Barbara Lindop, who has devoted her life to amassing and preserving the effects of Sekoto and who established the Gerard Sekoto Foundation after his death in 1993.

For the exhibition, Lindop has presented an extensive collection of background letters, photographs and memorabilia from the life and times of her treasured artist. There are CDs of Sekoto’s jazz compositions for sale and she has been instrumental in getting Jacana Media to publish Sekoto’s only children’s book, Shorty & Billy Boy: A Tale of Two Naughty Dogs, in a number of local languages.

Mashatile thanked Wakashe for having had the foresight to purchase Sekoto’s works on behalf of the government when Wakashe was the director general. This could only have been the 1960 series of nine watercolours collectively titled Recollection of Sharpeville and purchased in 2006. They are now housed at the Iziko South African National Gallery.

Political exile
Alongside two paintings commemorating the death of Steve Biko, the series was Sekoto’s most political work and was rendered in colours ranging from rust red to blue and gold. Painted with jagged outlines, white policemen pursue township dwellers in order to mete out terrible whippings. There is a facelessness to both victims and perpetrators. It was as though Sekoto, who experienced the massacre from such a far distance, was functioning as a fictitious photojournalist or war reporter.

In his speech, Mashatile reminded those present that his department is intending to send 800 artists to France this year for the second instalment of the France-South Africa Seasons initiated by President Jacob Zuma in 2011. The fact of local artists travelling to Paris at the government’s expense had great resonance at the event commemorating Sekoto. Some may have reflected on the artist’s own difficult relocation to Paris in 1947, even though it was more a journey of the heart than a rush into political exile.

Then Mashatile made what could be considered a ground-breaking announcement, one that must have surprised some art insiders present. “We want to get the work of Gerard Sekoto back in exhibitions in France, again, as part of the South Africa-France seasons,” Mashatile said. “So, we are looking at finalising a space where we can do this. We will be talking to the [Sekoto] Foundation to see how we can work together.”

In his opening address, ­Mashatile also said that his department intended to start an art bank and would “create permanent exhibition spaces in all government buildings, including all our embassies overseas, so that we are able to showcase the works of our artists”.

Song for Sekoto is curated by Mary-Jane Darroll, who is enjoying a high season. She is also the curator of an outdoor sculpture exhibition, After the Rainbow Nation, showing at the Nirox Sculpture Garden near the Cradle of Humankind until July.

Unexpected touches
For Song of Sekoto, Darroll has divided the show into chronological chapters, beginning with Sekoto’s earliest works, then works about Sophiatown (1938 to 1942), moving on to District Six (1942 to 1945), to Eastwood in Pretoria (1945 to 1947), and then to Paris (1947 to 1993).

But in between, Darroll has punctuated the show with unexpected touches. A row of depressing charcoal sketches dating from his time spent drying out at St Anne’s Hospital, in 1949, lines the walkway into the main exhibition hall and the first major work one sees (after Song of the Pick) is the idyllic Dawn, a painting of a tribal African family, painted from 1943 to 1944.

“I wanted the figures in his [St Anne’s] drawings to walk you up the ramp, to be with you as you enter the exhibition,” Darroll said. “And so, you come from a kind of old ideology of apartheid and restraint and constraint and division of labour into the picture of Dawn from the District Six period. In his mind, I suppose, that really is the longing for a time and place where everybody is equal, where there is freedom and democracy and there is no oppression.”

In the catalogue, the reproduction of Dawn is subtitled with Sekoto’s own words: “Freedom will come one day …”

Other punctuations Darroll has made include collections of family portraits Sekoto painted, and a section devoted to the experience of transport in the lives of ordinary black South Africans of the past.

A ramp leading to an upstairs gallery is lined with photographs of Sekoto. Some are by George Hallet, and there are giant portraits by Peter Johnson, giving monumental proportion to a personality who shunned the spotlight.

“Sekoto was hugely passionate and, I think, overly sensitive,” said Darroll during a walkabout with the Mail & Guardian. “I think his life in Paris was not an easy one. Looking at the quality of work [in South Africa], you can understand why a person would want to move into a more serious art world. South Africa was just too small. But it was not easy to break into the Paris art world and I think he drank a lot. And one sees, when you look at his work [in France], a different sensibility because of that.”

The section on Sekoto’s life in Paris culminates with his final work, The Smoker, painted from 1988 to 1993.

The fact that the painting was produced over so many years, as well as Sekoto’s many sketches of the subject, informs us that, late in life, he became obsessed with this image, however inadequately realised, of a poor boy treasuring the simple ­pleasure of smoking a cigarette.

Song for Sekoto runs at the Wits Art Museum in Jorissen Street, Braamfontein until June 2. The gallery is open from Wednesday to Sunday, from 10am to 4pm. There are children’s walkabouts on May 4 and 18 and an adult walkabout on May 11, all at 12pm. Tel: 011 717 1378

Matthew Krouse

Matthew Krouse

Matthew Krouse is the arts editor of the Mail & Guardian, a position he has held since 1999. He has edited two anthologies: Positions (Steidl, Jacana Media 2010) about artists engaging with politics in South Africa today, and The Invisible Ghetto (GMP, 1994) a compilation of creative writing about gender. His essays have appeared in collected works about arts and culture here and abroad. He has worked in the theatre for over a decade as an actor, writer and senior publicist at the Market Theatre. Read more from Matthew Krouse

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