Sekoto’s song builds up to an imperfect cadence

Gerard Sekoto's Song of the Pick.

Gerard Sekoto's Song of the Pick.

It is a pleasure to walk into an exhibition filled with the whispers and footsteps of a wandering audience, pointing and gesturing at works, and occasionally setting off an alarm because they wanted a closer-than-permitted view.

This is the first impression of Song for Sekoto, a massive logistical achievement that brings together works whose combined commercial value is stratospheric. It is not often enough that these kinds of showcases of significant South African artists happen here.  The centennial juncture of the artist’s birth in 1913 is surely cause to celebrate Gerard Sekoto’s significance, and also an opportunity to consider the particular ways in which he is being written into history.

The exhibition is spread out over three spaces in the Wits Art Museum: the entrance area and ramp, the main Gertrude Posel gallery and the upstairs mezzanine level. The substantive part of the exhibition in the main gallery reiterates conventional readings of Sekoto’s South African work in terms of three chronologically bounded geographies: Sophiatown, District Six and Eastwood, consecutively between 1938 and 1947.
This period has become the focus of research on the artist as well as the foundation of his value in the secondary market.

But curated so simply, and populated with a huge accumulation of works, Song for Sekoto has the unintended effect of reminding the viewer of the uneven quality of the artist’s work, and the extent to which his rendering of figures and compositions sometimes fall into caricature. One has to ask whether a more judicious selection, augmented with other kinds of exhibition material, might not have done more to enhance Sekoto’s reputation within increasingly globalised notions of modernism and modernity.  

The lost opportunity in this regard is the archival material in the glass cases. It is a wealth of material that includes clippings, correspondence and photographs. But because it has been poorly arranged, without the help of decent chronological or thematic markers, the potential of this archive to offer a richness of voices has been rendered mostly mute. Moreover, the archival material relating to Shorty and Billy Boy, in what it represents to an understanding of Sekoto’s multidisciplinarity, really should have had a more significant place in the exhibition.

Clumsy curatorial oversight
In his opening speech, the minister of arts and culture gave easy credence to Sekoto’s credentials as an artist of the struggle. While the ascription might seem at odds with a cursory scan of the exhibition, as well as assertions in the catalogue that Sekoto wasn’t interested in politics, it is worth considering what might be a more politicised sensibility than the one currently being offered in Song for Sekoto.

The mezzanine gallery includes a selection of Sekoto’s mostly unremarkable early works, and his output during exile. The exile period is dominated by a colder palate, harder lines and a sense of anonymity in faceless subjects. One only has to compare the two versions of Song of the Pick, in 1946 and 1978, to see the visual differences between home and exile. That this seminal comparison has been consigned to a corner of the museum, next to the reception desk, is a clumsy curatorial oversight.

The market’s discomfort with Sekoto’s art of exile is reflected in much lower prices for these works in the secondary market. Sadly, these lower prices have been allowed to overshadow understandings of the exile work, and Song for Sekoto does little to mitigate this problem. Partly because our history has been dominated by forms of migration happening here, notably forced removals, influx control and the migrant labour system, partly because exile happened somewhere else, and probably because we don’t yet know how to engage and interrogate questions of artistic exile, this most substantive period of Sekoto’s artistic life remains underappreciated.

Song for Sekoto runs at the Wits Art Museum until June 2. Rory Bester is head of history of art at the Wits School of Arts

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