'Horse and Cart, Sophiatown' signed 'Gerard Sekoto' (lower right) oil on canvasboard 49 x 69.5cm (19 5/16 x 27 3/8in).
PROVENANCE: Acquired in Johannesburg by Leah Zidel Thence by descent to the current owner
EXHIBITED: Johannesburg, Johannesburg Art Gallery, Gerard Sekoto: Unsevered Ties, 1 November 1989 - 10 February 1990, cat. no. 11, illustrated
LITERATURE: B. Lindop, Gerard Sekoto, (Randburg, 1988), illustrated p.56 B. Lindop ed. Ivan Vladislavic, G. Sekoto, My Life and Work, (Johannesburg, 1995) L. Spiro, Gerard Sekoto: Unsevered Ties, (Johannesburg, 1989), illustrated p.23
It is generally accepted that Horse and Cart, Sophiatown is the earliest known oil painting in Gerard Sekoto's oeuvre.
Sekoto had moved to Johannesburg from Limpopo province in 1939. He'd found accommodation in Gerty Street, 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. Later he even invited Sekoto to assist in teaching art during these classes. Although this was a temporary move for Sekoto, it nevertheless catapulted him into a vibrant and active cultural milieu, as Brother Roger was clearly a pioneering 'arts activist'.
By March 1939, Sekoto found his work included in the South African Academy Exhibition. A journalist from an Afrikaans publication, Die Brandwag, singled out Sekoto's work, commenting, "although he has almost no training, the grasp of colour and composition is a pleasant surprise." This 1939 press notice was the first of many such accolades. At subsequent public exhibitions, the arts editors of the daily newspapers never failed to comment admiringly on Sekoto's work. Some of the commentary tended towards being patronising by alluding to his being a black, uneducated artist, but most of it was spontaneously complimentary and favourable.
Thanks to Brother Roger Castle's energy, connections and encouragement, Sekoto exhibited in several exhibitions in Johannesburg between 1939 and 1942, including the subsequent Academy Exhibitions of 1940, 1941 and 1942. At the same time, he was exhibiting at the commercial Gainsborough Gallery Exhibitions in May 1939 and June 1940. Through the intervention of Walter Battiss, Sekoto was also included in the Fifth Anniversary Exhibition of the New Group in 1943.
It is tempting to propose that Horse and Cart, Sophiatown may have been the subject of the Brandwag commentary. Despite cautiousness in the brushwork, the painting is held together by a carefully constructed and tight composition. The canvas is divided centrally down the middle, with the electricity poles creating a sense of distance as they recede into the landscape. This vista is punctuated with vibrant brushstrokes of red, culminating in the triumphant church spire of the Church of Christ the King in the far-left background. The complementary tone of the green cyprus and pine trees, which tower above the smoke-filled chimneys of the abundant red roofs, cuts diagonally across the picture plane, again highlighting the soaring spire.
The road, cutting through the middle of the picture plane, is crammed with fascinating observation and detail, accentuating the hive of activity of the pedestrians scurrying in various directions, and of the cyclists, whose bicycle wheels replicate those of the cart, focusing attention on the foreground. This physical energy, enforced by the long afternoon shadows which create a pattern of light and shade, animates the solid mass of the muted grey and brown concrete buildings. Sekoto's experimental use of perspective is evident in the figures populating the road. The looming foreground figure carries a washing bundle, a driver is seated as his horse rears, and the hurrying figure of the Muslim intimates the multicultural environment of Sophiatown. Diminishing figures and cyclists disappear into the far distance. Sekoto wrote of his memories of living in Sophiatown as follows:
"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: women with baskets of shopping, some carrying baggage either on their heads or shoulders. Men of various styles of walking and clothing, some bicycle riding or driving cars, although in those days, car owners were rare in Sophiatown. There were also many children of varied appearance in attire and expression."
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. He incorporated these thought processes into his compositions, both in his design and colour usage.
Although Sekoto rejected his God-fearing upbringing early in his adult life, the emphasis placed on the Church in this composition suggests an acknowledged inner respect for these institutions. Construction of the Church of Christ the King began in 1934 and was completed by 1935, so it was a relatively new landmark on the horizon when Sekoto arrived in Sophiatown in 1939. A photograph taken recently shows the church spire still dominating the skyline, despite several decades of change and development. [INSERT PHOTO HERE - Sophiatown, August 2011]
Brother Roger belonged to the Anglican Order of the Community of the Resurrection and it was later, in the 1950s, that fellow Order member Trevor Huddleston came to live and work in Sophiatown at the Church of Christ the King. His experiences there inspired his book Naught for Your Comfort, thus immortalising Sophiatown and its expropriation and resettlement by the South African government.
In May 1939 Brother Roger arranged for the 'Exhibition of Gerard Sekoto and the African Schoolboys of the Priory, Rosettenville' to be held at the Gainsborough Gallery. An art critic from the Star newspaper commented on 29 March of that year, "of the three native artists Gerard Sekoto's work emphatically stands out ... he has realised one attribute of the artist to find beauty in unbeautiful places."
What was effectively a shanty town, with its accompanying poverty, overcrowding and dilapidation, is depicted here as a peaceful, sun-filled, vibrant community. Hardship and dereliction are expunged in colour, movement and pictorial device.
Horse and Cart, Sophiatown recalls a happier moment in South Africa's history, where ordinary people are depicted living their unpretentious, everyday lives. It is for this reason that this painting holds extraordinary historical importance for South Africa. One might suggest that its rightful place is in the historical Church of Christ the King, which remains a landmark to the struggle for human rights and freedom in the country.
Sekoto recalled his meeting with the artist Judith Gluckman to have taken place within the first few weeks of his arrival in Johannesburg. Brother Roger introduced them, and they would have had something in common, as Gluckman had also spent part of her youth in Limpopo province and spoke fluent Sotho. She offered to help him learn and adapt to painting in oils. His innate talent and natural ability are evident in the rapid progress he clearly made. Sekoto, in his reminiscences, openly acknowledged Gluckman's assistance but also emphasised his brief exposure to her lessons: "She invited me to her studio," he wrote, "where I went a few times perhaps about five or six times in all."
Judith Gluckman owned Horse and Cart, Sophiatown before it was sold to its next owner, so a fair assumption is that Sekoto may have painted this work under her aegis. 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.
We are grateful to Barbara Lindop for her assistance in cataloguing this lot.
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