Writing Art History Since 2002

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Standard Bank Gallery | Johannesburg

Since his death a year before democracy, Gerard Sekoto’s life – rather than his work – has been represented in many published texts; he is even the subject of a musical. This has lent a tone of sugary nostalgia and cliché to the image of this pioneer of South African art, and in many respects overshadows the critical reading of the work itself. The selection of work on this show, which comprises works on paper made in France and South Africa, contradicts this, but remains surprisingly demure as an exhibition.Born in 1913 in a Lutheran Mission Station in Botshabelo, Sekoto nourished a desire to become an artist, en route superseding many challenges. Sensitive to the racism that infiltrated his world, he went into self-imposed exile in France, in 1947, accompanied by a romantic belief in Paris as the art world’s Mecca. Once there, he struggled to make sense of the distinction between South African and European art values, a struggle matched by that of earning his keep. He never did make it back to South Africa, and died in exile. From the Paris studio comprises three main sections. There’s a selection of work Sekoto made in Paris, between 1947 and 1993. He bequeathed it to the South African public, but for several years it remained embargoed under complex tax bureaucracy. It was only in 1997 that the works officially became a part of Iziko’s collection in Cape Town, and this exhibition represents its debut in Johannesburg.The second component is a private collection of Sekoto’s work, owned by The Sowetan newspaper and housed at Wits University. These prolific drawings were largely made while Sekoto was in St. Anne’s, a mental institution near Paris, but also stem from his early years in South Africa. The third component presents work by Sekoto’s pre-exile contemporaries. The show is devoid of the kind of crass sentimentality with which Sekoto’s life story has been coloured. While visually clichéd, his work is simple and direct, demonstrating Sekoto’s sincerity and humanity, also his ability to improvise with mediums, ranging from ballpoint pen to charcoal to lithography. The presence of these works doesn’t challenge the unprepossessing visual impact of the exhibition as a whole, however.The tone of the exhibition is set but not exploited by his evocative yet minimalist charcoal drawings. It is these extraordinarily simple works, as well as the artist’s bold and lucid use of colour, that suggest Sekoto’s affinity to a European post-Impressionist ethos. Sadly, these wonderful little drawings are not significantly exploited in this exhibition, the works framed in a miscellany of 1970s-evocative frames and spread throughout the large wall spaces in the gallery. This gallery space is notoriously difficult, and the intimacy of many of these drawings is lost in their hanging.The network of artists with whom Sekoto established relations, displayed in the rear of the gallery, include George Pemba, Cecil Skotnes, Walter Battiss, Alexis Preller, Lippy Lipschitz, Gregoire Boonzaaier, Louis Maurice and Solly Disner. This display offsets the two main periods in Sekoto’s life, and ostensibly serves to flesh out an understanding of different sides to the artist himself. However, it doesn’t resonate smoothly with the central crux of the collections, and feels as though it is there to bolster the other works, a play to enable the curators to fill the gallery.The show offers insights into significant chapters in Sekoto’s development, but doesn’t achieve a representational understanding of his genius. Rather, it offers something of a grapeshot effect. While broadly acknowledging Sekoto as one of the fathers and pioneers of contemporary South African art, the show doesn’t do his legacy justice. You don’t come away in awe of Sekoto, a fact perhaps attributable to the disturbingly mundane layout and articulation of the exhibition. If anything, these gaps highlight the need for another, proper Sekoto retrospective in Johannesburg, something to follow the last one, in 1989.

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