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Bonhams to Auction Images of Sophiatown by South African Artist Gerard Sekoto

Images by Gerard Sekoto of Sophiatown, once his home outside Johannesburg, demolished and renamed ‘Triumph’ by the apartheid regime, and now resurrected once more as Sophiatown, go on sale at Bonhams next week. The two images are listed among the South African Masterpieces in the sale and are estimated at £200,000 to £300,000.

Had he lived Sekoto (1913 to 1993) would doubtless have been astonished by the critical recognition and the prices being achieved by his art. He spent the best part of his life down and out in Paris working for very little money as a musician.

Lot 507 Horse and Cart, Sophiatown estimated at £250,000 to 350,000. It is generally accepted as being the earliest known oil painting in Gerard Sekoto’s oeuvre.

Sekoto had moved to Johannesburg from Limpopo province in 1939 and found He’d found accommodation in Sophiatown, where he lived with his cousins. One of his cousins, Fred Norman, was attending St Peter’s School in Rosettenville, Johannesburg, and invited Sekoto to accompany him to the school. There, Sekoto met Brother Roger Castle, one of the teachers. Brother Roger wasted no time in recognising Sekoto’s talent and encouraged him to stay on at the school and attend art classes.

Sekoto wrote of his memories of living in Sophiatown: “The question of being in Sophiatown, an area reserved for blacks, had not troubled me in the least: on the contrary, the vitality of the area was a great stimulus. It was a theatrical scene seeing all these various types of people.”

The attention to detail and recorded minutiae in Horse and Cart, Sophiatown suggest Sekoto’s heightened powers of awareness and observation at this early stage in his career. Also evident in the painting is the sense of musicality that was inherent to Sekoto’s personality and youthful experience.

The painting remains an extraordinary document of an area in which people recall living culturally vibrant and happy lives, despite the real shortcomings of the squalid living conditions. Such memories have intensified as a reaction to its shocking subsequent expropriation and demolition in the 1950s. Those who experienced it mourn what became of the now romanticised Soph’town. Sophiatown was cynically renamed Triomph (‘Triumph’). It was only officially retitled Sophiatown after 1994, when some of the families who had been forcibly removed returned, with their descendants, to live in their original homes, or as near to them as they were able.

The other Sophiatown image in this Bonhams sale is Lot 512, Looking down the hill, Sophiatown, circa 1939-42, estimated at £200,000-300,000.

Sekoto’s painterly development and its progress from Horse and Cart, Sophiatown to this composition, Looking Down the Hill, are dramatic. The painting exemplifies Sekoto’s quick ability to learn and to master the new techniques to which he had been so recently exposed. He quickly grasped the principles that his newfound mentor, Judith Gluckman, had explained, and made these techniques his own.

There is no sense of the influence of any other artist in Sekoto’s paintings. This is despite the fact that a critic from one of the daily newspapers commented: “Sekoto could take his place amongst the ‘Moderns’, particularly the French school, for his canvases are marked by extremely good colour and drawing.” (H.E.Winder, Rand Daily Mail, 24 May 1939)

Sekoto acknowledged the influence of his friend and colleague at Khaiso School, the artist Ernest Mancoba, who had introduced him to the art of Vincent van Gogh, but he refers to this as more the awareness of “life’s hardship that artists must expect.” Nowhere is there any evidence that Sekoto copied Van Gogh’s images, nor wished to, as his interest lay within his own community and in documenting his surroundings.

Sophiatown was a freehold working-class suburb and was noteworthy for its ethnic and racial diversity. As a result, a dynamic cultural richness emerged and intensified, and is frequently evoked in modern-day South African music, literature and the arts. Unlike Horse and Cart, Sophiatown, where the vibrancy of the community is tangible, Looking Down the Hill offers a sense of space and a view of land yet to be developed – early Johannesburg still rising to its destiny as the economic power house of South Africa.

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