'Looking down the hill, Sophiatown' signed 'G Sekoto' (lower right) oil on canvas 41 x 50.5cm (16 1/8 x 19 7/8in). circa 1939-42
PROVENANCE: Acquired directly from the artist By direct descent to the current owner
EXHIBITED: Johannesburg, Johannesburg Art Gallery, Gerard Sekoto: Unsevered Ties, 1 November 1989 - 10 February 1990, no. 15
LITERATURE: B. Lindop, Gerard Sekoto, (Randburg, 1988), illustrated p. 53 L. Spiro, Gerard Sekoto: Unsevered Ties (Johannesburg, 1989), illustrated p.75
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.
Sekoto's intrinsic ability was to absorb his environment and change the commonplace into haunting and original images. In doing so, he sought out the essence of the atmosphere of his subject matter and transformed the visions he made into a realm of collective memory. His paintings become a wellspring of past experience, of shared knowledge where familiarity of things remembered are re-encountered in his imagery.
Sophiatown in the 1930s has been described in the following terms:
"... the roads were mere dirt tracks ... water supplies were drawn from wells dug by the people themselves. These wells were open. Refuse and drowned animals often infected them, and this spread disease. Sewage buckets were not collected regularly after 1935, three times a week at most." (Callinicos, 1987, 180)
As in Horse and Cart, Sophiatown, there is no sense here of the untoward. Heavy opaque shade, cast from an unseen tree, leads into a sun-drenched vista of a somnambulant afternoon. Large trees nestle behind the red and grey brick walls, suggesting a settled and established community. Once again Sekoto uses the artistic device of a line of electricity poles to mark the length of the road, which eventually winds up the distant hill and beyond, into a hazy blue sky. Bright sunlight breaks out from the dark shadow, highlighting a little figure hanging up washing. At the bottom of the hill, two figures scurry across the road. Nothing disturbs the peaceful, quiet atmosphere, enhanced by golden tones contrasted with soft shades of blue.
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.
A recent photograph of a similar view makes for an interesting comparison with Looking Down the Hill. Taken seventy-two years after Sekoto composed this painting, the photograph captures an afternoon light that recalls the Sekoto skies, but the changed landscape is a poignant reminder of the callous expropriation and forced removal policy that shattered so many peoples' lives.
Brother Roger Castle introduced Sekoto to Joan Ginsberg, the owner of the Gainsborough Galleries, early in 1939. Through this introduction Sekoto was invited to show his work in an exhibition organised by Brother Roger entitled 'Exhibition of the paintings of Gerard Sekoto and the African Schoolboys from the Priory, Rosettenville'. That it was decided to mention his name in the title must have boosted Sekoto's confidence and assured him that his new career as an artist was already on a sound footing.
Eleven of Sekoto's works were displayed, one of which was a piece entitled Sophiatown Houses, and prices for his work at the Gainsborough Galleries ranged from two to forty guineas. It was here that H.E. Winder from the Rand Daily Mail commented on Sekoto's affinity to the "'moderns', particularly the French school ... It is difficult to say whether his Sophiatown Houses, an excellent painting, with very good colour gradation ... was the best picture in the exhibition." A critic from the Star newspaper added to this approval, writing on 25 September 1939: "Gerard Sekoto's work emphatically stands out ... His Sophiatown Houses is excellent in colour and composition."
The title of Looking Down the Hill was conceived in the mid-1980s, when the present author was tracing, cataloguing and preparing the first publication on Sekoto, the book Gerard Sekoto (Dictum, 1988). Although the suggestion of Looking Down the Hill as a title was discussed, in addition to other subjects, with Sekoto himself through lengthy handwritten correspondence, Sekoto did not demur at the time to the proposed title, and so the painting was named. The original owner of the painting later told the author that she had acquired it in 1939 from the Gainsborough Galleries. On this basis one is drawn to conclude that Looking Down the Hill should, in fact, be called Sophiatown Houses, which would allow, so many years later, those early accompanying press accolades their celebration.
We are grateful to Barbara Lindop for her assistance in cataloguing this lot.
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