Sekoto Analysis

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Gerard Sekoto 1913 – 1933

  • Analysis by Esme Berman
  • Bibliography

History was made in 1940, when Johannesburg Art Galery  bought Sekoto’s Yellow houses – a Street in Sophiatown, it was the first work by a black artist to enter the museum’s collection. This artwork differs from many of Sekoto’s other Sophiatown paintings of the time in that the emphasis is on the setting, rather than on its human occupants. In most of the township scenes that he completed before and shortly after 1940, the figures are the primary subjects of the pictures and they are usually brought into the foreground, close to the picture-plane. Although Sekoto went to pains to establish the context of the individuals or activities depicted, seldom were the buildings or the streets themselves the centre of attention.

Yellow Houses, Sophiatown (1940)

In Yellow Houses, however, Sekoto is portraying the place. The small figures, almost insignificant in relation to the broad ribbon of uneven, unpaved road, serve to dramatise the bleakness of the dry surroundings; and the lushness of the environment is further emphasised by the triangular patch of garden in the foreground, where green life struggles through the dry red soil.

The structure of the scene is more sophisticated – and more conventional – than many of his other compositions of the period. The strong diagonal movement that takes the eye into the distance is interrupted, and focus effectively returned to the immediate vicinity, by the the firm vertical of the blue building to the right. The restated vertical accent of the gatepost, right up against the picture-plane, acts like a finger pointing to the sunny yellow houses that provide the title of the painting.

From his position in the dwelling just behind the blue gatepost, Sekoto has given us a long view of the street. To contain the scene within so small a format, he has miniaturised all pictorial data other than the yellow wall, denying this work the bright, contrasting slabs of colour that activate the elements of his more typical close-up views.

In contrast with their drab surroundings, those neat domestic buildings appear cheerful and inviting, havens from the outside glare. It is afternoon in Sophiatown; the workers are still away in the city; and the life of this side-street is concealed behind those yellow walls, inside the houses, towards which children are proceeding.

During the Eastwood period, the influence of Expressionists can be seen especially in his colour use and distortion of perspective. The simplification of his figures also bears a resemblance to the influence of African Art on Post Impressionists. In some paintings you can also see the influence of the Impressionists treatment of Shadows where there are only coloured shadows. Later work showed the influences of Cubism.

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