Sekoto Background

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Gerard Sekoto 1913 – 1933

  • Short Biography
  • Influences

Gerard Sekoto was born 9 September 1913 in Botshabelo, a German missionary station (Lutheran Church) for the Pedi community in Middleburg, Transvaal. He had a strict Christian upbringing and his family were quite well educated. Music also played an important part of his early upbringing within the missionary environment and throughout his life.

He became a teacher near Pietersburg but after he won a prize in a national art competition in 1938 he left teaching and moved to Sophiatown, where he started to paint full time. During the 1940’s and early 1950’s Sophiatown became a center of black art, politics, and culture; however, in 1955, the ruling South African National Party passed the Group Areas Act which ordered for the removal of the black residents of Sophiatown.

Local artists Alexis Preller and Judith Gluckman taught him to work in oil. He was unhappy in the racially segregated environment in Johannesburg, and moved to District Six in Cape Town where he developed his distinctive style. In 1945 he moved to Eastwood in Pretoria where most of his best known paintings were painted.

In 1947, he decided to move to Paris in self exile, the year before the election that brought the Afrikaner Nationalist government into power and just before Apartheid became official.  Through his music he paid for his living and art school expenses. It was only in the 1960’s that he started to receive recognition for his art and held several successful international exhibitions. He never returned to South Africa and died in 1993. Sekoto is remembered as “the father” of black modernism in South Africa, and he remained a role model for future black artists.

Interior Sophiatown

Dancing Senegalese Figures

His art can be divided into three periods: the late 1930s in Sophiatown; the early 1940s in District Six; and 1940s in Eastwood, Pretoria. His work in Paris from 1947 onwards was less characteristic as is seen in the Senegalese Dancers which shows Cubistic infleunce. He is recognized as a pioneer in urban black art, and social realism. His work became less about recording views of his environment or observed reality, and more about using line, form, shape and color as expressive means in and of themselves.

His work was influenced by the socio-political environment of South Africa in which he grew up where black people had less rights than white people. His style of painting was also influenced by Post Impressionists like Van Gogh whom he was introduced to while teaching at the Khaiso School. The thick brushstrokes of Van Gogh possibly influenced his earlier work such as Poverty in the Midst of Plenty (1939).

Poverty in the Midst of Plenty (1939)

Yellow Houses Sophiatown (1940)

During 1944 he lived near Distric Six in Cape Town, a neighbourhood whose cultural blend, racial mix, and later demise was similar to Sophiatown’s. According to some observers he was influenced by the expressionist work of Maggie Laubser, who had lived in Berlin during the 1920s. Through these experiences Sekoto gained exposure to the work of White South African Artists who followed international trends, and through them to the major styles of European modern art.

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