'Art & Urbanisation'
by Themba ka Mathe
Last week I spent some time with Gerard Sekoto in a Rosebank gallery. Shy as a tortoise, Sekoto sat quietly in the western-wing of the Warren Siebrits Modern and Contemporary Art. On display were two seminal painting he had once exhibited in Pretoria, works that had not been shown again since. Sekoto spoke basically about life.
For Sekoto, the everyday is the triumph of human spirit over the deplorable social and economic conditions he and hordes of other urbanised black people lived through in Eastwood and Sophiatown. Of course, Sekoto does not open his mouth when he speaks anymore. He was speaking to me through his two paintings Six Pence A Door and Women And Child.
Sekoto's drawings posses the power of convincing detail and deep emotion, they have the sensitivity to speak for themselves - and for the artist. Rendered in oil on canvass, Sekoto's subjects live a life of exertion that is so palpable, vivid and realistic. As one of South Africa's pioneering black artists, Sekoto helped evolve a visual language that continues to fill one with a sense of pride, especially when engaging with two such rare pieces.
'Art and Urbanisation', a group show that brings together a host of pioneering black artists whose work records the transition from rural to city life, is an invaluable opportunity for students, artists, the general public and tourists alike to gain an understanding of what happened in South Africa 60 years ago. In this show Sekoto is joined by nine other pioneering black artists in a historic exhibition that traces 30 years of artistic evolution in South Africa (1940 - 1971), examining at the same time how the process of urbanisation influenced their craft.
It took Siebrits 13 years to put together this collection of 20 works by Sekoto and his friends, some of them highly unrecognised, all of them important. The exhibition 'Art and Urbanization' charts a lost tradition, a rich and rare visual representation that is now only found in auction houses, in the hands of private collectors and in European museums.
The exhibition starts on the pavement of Jan Smuts Avenue. Straight through the gallery's glass frontage, viewers are confronted by Julian Motau's highly detailed charcoal drawing on paper and Lucas Sithole's visually vibrant sculpture. Forming the centrepieces of the show, these two pieces draw pedestrians into this show. Both life-sized, they are haunting and technically astounding. Ironically, they both depict mothers crowded by malnourished children crying for protection. Motau's Mother Africa and Sithole's Mother and Child were produced at the peak of these two artist's careers, both in the very late 60s.
To get a good understanding of this show, however, one need look no further than the tranquilly of Gerard Bhengu's rural Natal landscapes, in his European inspired Valley of a Thousand Hills. Then, interchange this with his highly detailed watercolour portraits of the innocent child (Ogenacala), honourable chief (Patriarch) and the dignified African queen (Nthmbenhle). In these portraits, Bhengu captures the purity of South Africa before other powerful forces came into play in the late 1940s.
Moving through the show, the works of artists like Durant Sihlali and Andrew Motjuoadi show the strong influence of Christianity in the 1960s. Motjuoadi's ZCC Baptism, Vicinity of Mamelodi Township, Pretoria, and Sihlali's The Blessing variously show African people either being baptised, blessed or confessing their sins. As urbanisation tightened its grip, the visual emphasis shifts to depictions of the mines and slums, western clothing and cars, poverty and oppression, particularly in the works of Ephraim Ngatane, George Pemba, Dumile Feni and Ezrom Legae.
In overview, what is interesting about this collection of works is how easy going and open to the eye they remain, despite the deplorable conditions of which they artists speak. An indication that this grouping of artists painted mostly what they saw, this is in complete contrast with today's intelligent construct of the artist's mind. Observers, recorders and activists, these pioneers of a black tradition display how determined they were in times of great adversity, as well as how limiting burdensome tags like "protest art", "alternative art" or "township art" really are.
As I leave the gallery, I remember that Sekoto didn't say anything about his experiences in District Six. I choose to ignore this, focussing my mind instead on the works shown in the gallery. I realise that this has been a rare opportunity to enjoy and appreciate the output of a grouping of immense talents whose works will soon scatter away once more.
Opens: Thursday May 8, 6.30pm
Closes: June 29
Warren Siebrits Modern and Contemporary Art
140 Jan Smuts Avenue, Parkwood, Johannesburg
Tel: 011. 327-0000
Fax: 011. 327-5999
Hours: Wednesday to Friday 12 - 6 pm, Saturday 12 - 4 pm