Sekoto and I – from one artist to another

This piece is a shortened transcription of a talk Ntobeko did at a Thursday night KRUX evening. Ntobeko has taught South African and Western African art and spent two years lecturing at the African Christian University in Zambia, Lusaka. He is currently involved in student ministry at the Student Y at UCT and pursuing his own art practice.

“Gerard Sekoto was a pioneering figure in African Modernism […] He was not only one of the first black artists to work in oil paints but also one of the few to find steady patronage in the 1940s South Africa. […] His documentation of life in Sophiatown, District six, and Eastwood also provides vital evidence of these areas that were subsequently destroyed by the Apartheid regime.”

I want to start off by saying, I don’t want to make this an academic exercise. I just want it to be a conversation. So while I’m talking, if you want to ask something, or say something, please feel free to raise your hand. I asked my wife to read some parts from this book about Gerard Sekoto (Gerard Sekoto ‘I am an African’ A Biography by N Chabani Manganyi). There are certain important things that I just want to share with you. So I’ll be talking about some of Sekoto’s work that is not familiar with the public, and then I’ll ask my wife Siphokazi to read something from the book.

Sekoto was self-taught, he didn’t go to school like people today. An interesting thing about him; he was born in 1913, in the same year that the Land Act was passed in South Africa. It’s fascinating to see how he interacted with that time, growing up in that era in South Africa.

Another interesting fact is that his name is actually his grandfather’s name. His grandfather is one of the earliest converts of Christianity at that time. He was also a lay pastor who was dispatched to Berlin to undertake translation of the Holy Bible into Northern Sotho. Then his father also became a pastor later on. And his father was also a lay physician – he worked closely with a Scottish doctor. He used to drive around on a cart back then, going to people’s house as a pastor and also help them with medication if they are sick and refer them to doctors if they need medical help and he was also an artist.

Growing up, Sekoto came across a bunch of books and amongst those books was sort of like a journal, and that was the first time he had seen a sketch in colour, so that caught Sekoto’s attention.

(reading) “One day I was looking curiously through my father’s books when all of sudden, I came to the biggest surprise of my life: a drawing book in which there was still-life in colour done by his father when he was a student at college. I still remember a light blue with some warm colours of pink, ochre and yellow-hardly any striking reds. It struck me so much that up to this day, I regret that my father could not have continued. Although I was still young age, I could feel a poise in the composition and a stateliness in the colouring which was in true confidence of being together.”

Gerard Sekoto, “The evening prayer” Oil on canvas

I titled the talk “Sokoto and I“, and the reason I put myself in there, is that I love Sekoto’s ability to imbue images with feeling. I love the fact that his work is self-taught (i.e. not coming from the academic space). It was based on how he felt and how he saw things. One of his friends, Ernest Mancoba (later a well-known sculptor and painter), when Sekoto started painting, he told him; “Listen, don’t feel threatened by other people around you that went to school and are well off. School is important and all that. But in your position, you can just paint how you feel.”

Because of that, he always allowed his peers to come around his studio, where he was working, and he really wanted to hear their opinions about what he was doing, Mancoba had a big influence on him on how he should paint; he didn’t have any training, but he loved what he was doing. When Mancoba said he should paint how we feels. He really took that to heart, and you see that in the works he has done.

Gerard Sekoto, “Prayer at church” c.1947

In these works Sekoto speaks about his Christian upbringing, which I admire. Because there is also protest in depicting that.

(reading) “Sekoto had seen black people humiliated, at times physically assaulted by rogue police officers in Johannesburg, he had become subject to the ongoing operation to humiliate and dehumanize black South Africans. […] Africans was always put to the test, as if they had strayed into a foreign planet where they had remained unwelcome.”

Through these works Sekoto is showing the world “we are people like any other people: we pray, we know God, we love the Lord” you know what I mean? Even if he is not outright about his own faith or necessarily practicing his family faith, his still strove to put faith out there at the time even if he didn’t believe himself. At some point, he says “I’m looking at my father and the teachings that I’ve learned about Christianity. I learned a lot, but at the same time it left me with a lot of questions that weren’t answered”. So that relationship with his father was kind of like “I love my dad, but there are things that I’m not sure about”. For me, seeing that throughout his work shows that he was still thinking about what he has learned and what he grew up into.

Not just that, but showing the outside world: listen, we understand. We understand church life. In the painting Prayer in church you don’t see people’s faces. But there is a whole emotion there. And he did that just by using colour. The warm red, the warm yellow oak; for me it says: There is Prayer happening here. Also, see how the kids are sort of oblivious to what’s happening around them. They’re just being kids. You know what I mean? 

Gerard Sekoto, “Yellow houses: district six” 1942

As much as Sekoto wanted recognition and earn from his art, he was skeptical when his artworks sold quickly on his first solo exhibition (at Gainsborough Gallery). Sekoto wanted people to genuinely ‘buy into him’ as an artist, I think he viewed that as a way of people respecting not only his art but himself, since he transferred how he felt on canvas.

(reading) “I wanted people to look but I did not want to hoist a flag, I wanted people to be sincere, I wanted to be sure, I was very sensitive. I did not want just to get prizes and awards. I wanted sincere communication. I was suspicious, I wanted to see the reality because what I was doing was painting subjects about what was happening, subjects which were not taken care of. Which seemed neglected.” 

I relate to him in this respect. I have a saying that ‘ if you think one of my art pieces will look nice next to your new curtains or couches, please don’t buy my work.’ My thinking is: the moment you don’t like the curtains or the couch the chances are the artwork will lose its worth and end up in a storeroom or trash! (laughs)

Gerard Sekoto, “Yellow houses, a street in Sophiatown” 1940

Sekoto moved from an area which at the time was called Wonderhoek (I don’t think it’s there now as far as names concern. Names of places change over the years). He moved to Joburg and then from Joburg, District six (here in Cape Town) and then again, Pretoria. So you see he didn’t just paint, but he also recorded history. 

(reading) A few years before the calamitous election of the National Party in 1948. Sekoto was being drawn closer to the suffering of ordinary people, he was seeing the reality, in doing so he was being exposed to hidden realities, well beneath the surface appearances of hardship, … love, intimacy, social solidarity, and the many faces of dignity in the relationships and activities of ordinary men, women and children.” 

Sekoto used his experiences of places to bring intense feeling into his work. I don’t know anyone who has done that besides Van Gogh. Van Gogh did something that nobody was doing. He created his own emotional visual language. Same thing with Sekoto; his emotions and how he felt, he took that and transferred it to his brush. His language was understood by everyone, in the 1940s you have a black artist making waves, and everyone says ‘I gotta have one of his piece’. That’s a language that transcends beyond skin colour, racism and segregation. That’s a language that people understand.

People talk about Sophiatown but it doesn’t exist anymore, it’s not there! When I was in Joburg, I think two years back, I walked around where Sophiatown used to be. It’s all modernized now, and it’s got some nice houses, church buildings and malls. I kept thinking to myself, wow! Sekoto captured it before it changed.

Gerard Sekoto, “Three women on steps” 1941

Sophiatown at that time, in the 40s, was very mixed. Like there were white people there, English speakers, Afrikaans speakers, Zulu people, Xhosa speakers. It was the kind of a town where everybody was welcome, your jazz musicians, your artists, your designers. The government didn’t like that kind of integration, obviously, because it wasn’t helping the ideology they were trying to enforce. Hence, Sophiatown was demolished. In the book Sekoto says “you see all kinds of people here, coming in and out, cars driving in and out, and the culture is rich, and it is exciting”. He goes on to say “it’s different from where I come from (meaning the rural areas), and people here are genuinely interested in you. They live carefree”.

Listening to it sounds like a fairy tale, like this place that used to be there, but it’s not there anymore. You know what I mean? (It reminded me of Lord of the Rings). But it was real. Now, in the 21st Century there seems to be a myth that there never was a time when black and white people lived together and got along in South Africa. And that is false – it’s not true. I’m not saying they weren’t fighting; I’m not saying people weren’t rubbing each other up the wrong way, I’m not saying racism was not there. But at least people lived together, understanding one another to a certain extent. In this day and age people draw lines in the sand saying you must pick a side. It you even try to speak about reconciliation or reaching out to others of a different culture or skin tone, you are being seen as a sell-out by your own people! And I view that as craziness. We are human beings before anything. As human beings we need each other. People always find a way of being together with each another.

Sekoto for me was not just a painter, he felt things, and he allowed how he felt to govern how he paints. And he wanted people to respect him for what he does, and who he was projecting through his art. Like when I read his biography I though, yho!, now I understand his work and understand how he uses his brush. He may not be giving a lot of details with his brush. And his brush may be a little bit like uneducated (if we’re talking about an academic space), but his brush was sincere. He wanted his brush to mean something.
I want to do the same in my own painting, to allow the rawness, the emotion of what I feel to influence my subject.

Ntobeko Mjijwa, Death in the Room, Oil on canvas, 2030 x 810 mm

Ntobeko Mjijwa, King David (psalm 142)  Oil on board

Ntobeko Mjijwa, Life is a vapour I, Oil on Canvas


Quotes are from Chabani, N. Manganyi, 2004. Gerard Sekoto; I am an African; A biography. Wits University Press