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Head of Sale
The collection of South African Railways and Harbours;
Mrs M. G. Morgenroth, South Africa;
A private collection.
Pretoria, Christi's Gallery, Sekoto: Solo Exhibition, 25 April-12 May 1947, no. 7.
London, Tate Gallery, Exhibition of South African Art Abroad, 20 September 1948.
Amsterdam, Stedelijk Museum, Exhibition of Contemporary South African Paintings, Drawings and Sculpture, 10 December 1948.
Paris, Musée Galerie, Overseas Exhibition of South African Art, February 1949.
Ottawa, National Gallery of Canada, Exhibition of Contemporary South African Paintings, Drawings and Sculpture, with a Prelude of Historical Paintings, 21 April 1949.
Washington D. C., National Gallery of Art, 31 July 1949.
Cape Town, South African Association of Arts, Exhibition of Contemporary South African Paintings, Drawings and Sculpture, 1948-49, no. 102.
Lindop, B., Gerard Sekoto (Randburg, SA, 1988), (illustrated) bears the title 'Man in a Donkey Cart', pp. 176-177.
A label on the back of this important South African painting by Gerard Sekoto formally identifies it as Donkeys. The Donkeys was listed as #7 at Sekoto's solo exhibition at Christi's Gallery, Pretoria, between 25 April and 12 May 1947, which suggests that it was painted shortly before. The artist noted that he made successful sales at both this exhibition and the one in July-August 1947 at the Gainsborough Gallery, Johannesburg, so well, in fact, that he was able to fund his forthcoming trip to Paris and self-imposed exile.
At, or soon after, the Christi's exhibition, Donkeys was acquired by the South African Railways and Harbours, the collection of which is recorded on the same label on the reverse of the painting which further states that it lent the work to the 'Exhibition of South African Art Abroad' in the following year. The fact that the South African Railways and Harbours also bought two works at this exact time from Irma Stern suggests that Donkeys was destined (as the Stern works) for the same proposed South African Railways Hotel.
The 'Exhibition of South African Art Abroad', organised by the South African Association of Arts, and sponsored by the South African Government, opened at the Tate Gallery, London, in September 1948 and travelled to several European and North American countries before returning to Cape Town in 1949-50. Sekoto was represented by four works in this show, Sophia Town, Evening, the much-celebrated Sixpence a Door, Three Picanins, and Donkeys. The painting is listed in the exhibition catalogue, under the slightly different title 'Exhibition of Contemporary South African Paintings, Drawings and Sculpture, Cape Town', 1948-49, number 102. Donkeys was de-accessioned by the South African Railways and Harbours when the 'palatial' hotel project was abandoned, resulting in the present owner's family acquiring the work at auction in Johannesburg in 1954-55.
Sekoto painted Donkeys in Eastwood, an African township outside Pretoria, where the artist spent almost two years living with his mother, stepfather, and other family members before leaving for Europe in September 1947. This period is generally understood to be the most productive and successful period of his life. As well as several portraits of family members, Sekoto made remarkable still lifes such as Mine Boy and many paintings of Eastwood township life inter alia The Kitchen Table, a domestic interior (sold by Bonhams in 2014) and Seated at Table. Sixpence a Door represents a street performance; and Gossip at Eastwood and Raw Light (also sold at Bonhams in 2019) represent social interactions on the streets of the township. The Donkey Cart and the present work, Donkeys, celebrate an old-fashioned, even picturesque mode of transport.
The complete absence of white people from these scenes is testimony to the segregation of South African communities that was soon to be brutally reinforced under Apartheid. But Sekoto, like George Pemba in the Eastern Cape, represents a harmonious and self-contained social order. Both artists, of course, depended on a white clientele which would have doubtless preferred a positive over a negative view of South African township life. But it has been argued that, in context, these works constitute a form of protest in that not only do they replace the primitivizing stereotype of rural African people that was still popular with white artists such as Irma Stern with a contemporary view of urban black life, but they also tend "to humanise the world of the anonymous masses for the white viewer". However, there can be no doubt that Sekoto and Pemba took both pride and pleasure in representing the communities where they lived. Sekoto's account of the origin of Donkeys, for example, is entirely positive:
"At Eastwood I was relaxed. I could work hard at my painting. I was not worried by all the people and things around me as I had been in the big cities. The people in Eastwood did not mind when I looked at them. In fact, some people were happy to model for me.
There was a man who sold water to the people in the township. He had a tank of water, which was pulled by donkeys. He was very happy for me to make sketches of him. Later I painted a picture of him."
Within a few years, Eastwood, like Sophia Town in Johannesburg, and District 6 in Cape Town, where Sekoto had previously lived and worked, was demolished by Apartheid urban planners. The present work represents the quality of life, no doubt impoverished but certainly dignified and vital, that was annihilated in the process.
We are grateful to Professor Michael Godby for the compilation of the above footnote.
Barbara Lindop, Gerard Sekoto (Johannesburg: Dictum Publishing, 1988), pp.24-26.
Irma Stern's Cashbook, National Library of South Africa, Cape Town, MSC 31, 3, p.89.
The Cape Times, 'Pictures for South African Railways Hotel', (13 March 1947)
Lize van Robbroeck, '"That Magnificent Generation": Tradition and modernity in the lives, art and politics of the first modern black painters', in, Visual Century: South African Art in Context, Volume 1, 1907-1948, ed. Jillian Carman (Johannesburg: Wits University Press, 2011), pp. 114-133.
Gerard Sekoto, My Life and Work, (Cape Town, Claremont: Viva Books, 1995), p. 57.
Please note, this work's medium should be catalogued as 'oil on board', not 'oil on canvas' as is incorrectly stated in the cataloguing.