Schoolgirls signed 'Gerard Sekoto' (upper right) oil on canvasboard 35 x 25.5cm (13 3/4 x 10 1/16in).
PROVENANCE: Acquired directly from the artist Thence by descent to the current owner
Many of the images that find their way into Gerard Sekoto's compositions can be traced to early influences in his life. Sekoto was born on the Lutheran mission station at Botshabelo, near Middelburg in South Africa, where his father was a schoolteacher. From an early age he was taught of the importance of education, a core family value. Sekoto writes:
"On the mission station there were relatives from both my mother's and father's side, who mostly were very musically inclined. Many played different instruments, could read and write music, directed choirs at school, and at the same time they were schoolteachers."
Thus as a little boy Sekoto discovered his love of and interest in all things artistic. However it was only when he went to high school at Botshabelo that this innate talent was encouraged. There, he was chosen to enter an art competition to design the school badge, which he won:
"My design was chosen although its significance had been misinterpreted by the headmaster who had understood the open book (learning) for the open Bible."
The repeated series of images displayed in his work which became more frequent in the years of his exile in France, may relate back to youthful memories that he could not, or did not want to forget. His clearly happy and secure childhood, surrounded as he was by a close-knit and loving family, was the rock of stability that enabled him to withstand the difficulties of later years.
Sekoto's education took place at the Diocesan Training College, an Anglican institution where he trained to become a schoolteacher. He was later offered a teaching post at the Khaiso Secondary School near Pietersburg (now Polokwane) and it was while teaching there that he was able for the first time to develop and practise his art. He quickly decided to forgo his teaching career to become an artist. To this end he travelled in 1939 to Sophiatown where he began to establish his artistic career. In 1942 he moved to Cape Town to District 6, by which time he had become recognised as an artist of talent and had a growing following.
When Sekoto relocated to Eastwood, Pretoria, in 1945 to join his family, he painted Mine Boy, which was inspired by a book written by Peter Abrahams that was banned six weeks after it had been published. The composition of this painting is devised to focus attention on the book and its title, suggesting the significance of this publication to Sekoto. Books and reading form the subject matter of several paintings in Sekoto's oeuvre, including Young Boy Reading and the Portrait of a Young Man Reading. These works celebrate the inherent excitement in the discovery of learning and suggest that values ingrained in Sekoto during his formative years were not discarded.
A newfound domestic intimacy discovered by Sekoto, living again in secure and loving surroundings, is reflected in the paintings belonging to the Eastwood period. His models were often family members or acquaintances and a sense of this familiarity is suggested in the paintings' subject matter. Sekoto's attention to detail and the introduction of personal, idiosyncratic characteristics of his models were evident throughout his pre-exile oeuvre, but in the Eastwood period this descriptive feature of his work is perfected.
The enchantment and magic of Schoolgirls lies in the compositional features of design, colour and pattern. Five young girls gather excitedly around a book. The girls cluster together, interlaced by heads, arms, hands, legs, berets and faces, and colour is reduced to the blue school uniforms, highlighted by the white shirts and a melee of brown legs, arms and heads. Colour is used to alternate and bring interest to the berets and the one bare head, introducing a note of musicality that is inherent in many of Sekoto's paintings. The choice of reds and oranges of the berets defines the moment of enthusiasm, as the central figure, with her friend's head tucked under the left side of her chin, looks at the book's pages. Through colour and composition, attention is focused on the interest of the book's content.
When considering his future as a black South African artist, Sekoto's feelings of hopelessness and helplessness overwhelmed him. He had already suffered humiliation in various forms, where his dignity and sense of self worth were undermined, and his impending gloom hastened his exile to Paris. For the rest of his life he aspired to make art that would highlight the inequality that apartheid imposed on his fellow South Africans.
Schoolgirls serves as a poignant reminder of what South African history and its present problem of illiteracy may have been.
We are grateful to Barbara Lindop for her assistance in cataloguing this lot.