It is not surprising that Gerard Sekoto, Ernest Mancoba and generations of South African artists gravitated towards Paris. Impressionism, cubism and surrealism took hold in this city at the turn of last century.
Ironically, many of the progenitors of modernism looked to Africa for inspiration. With white supremacism in full swing in South Africa, it made sense for black artists to escape to less oppressive pastures. This didn’t always advance their art.
There is a certain charm to the works Sekoto made in Paris. He famously played music in clubs until late and his vision of this city was delivered through a sort of dark, smoky blue haze.
Mostly, it is artworks he made before he left his native country in 1947 that are more readily valued - such as Women in the Country and The Pink Road, which will be exhibited in Cape Town and Joburg before the Strauss & Co auction on November 13, alongside works by prominent black artists while in Paris and their white contemporaries such as Irma Stern, Alexis Preller and Maggie Laubser.
“The unobtrusive observer” is a phrase commonly associated with his art. Typically, it applies to documentary photographers, who become invisible so that their subjects forget that they are there. This helps us believe their images are true, authentic slices of life.
Certainly, the two women pictured conversing with each other in his painting Women in the Country appear to be so absorbed in a story that one speaker has her back to the viewer while the other is looking away. They are barefoot and framed by rolling hills in the distance.
The display and sale of this painting at the coming Strauss & Co Auction in Joburg on November 13 is proving to be anything but an ordinary event. This is partially because of the fact that Sekoto’s works from this period rarely come up for sale - no one wants to part with them.
Women in the Country was painted during 1946 to 1947 while he was in Eastwood before he left for Paris.
“I wanted to dig into my ancestral roots as I no longer believed that the tradition of my forefathers was evil,” he said of his time in the black settlement outside Pretoria.
Executed in the early forties, The Pink Road is a more typical example of his art. It is from his Sophiatown period and describes an urban scene infused by a warm yellow glow. Aside from his romantic palette, he doesn’t put any spin on the scene.
There are no gangsters, musicians or artists - figures that would come to be associated with Sophiatown’s heydays.
His view of Sophiatown is almost banal. A man and a woman are talking, while an old man props himself up with a walking stick.
This relaxed vibe would be disrupted by the forced removals of the fifties. The houses pictured in the background would be flattened and the easy exchanges in the street and social relationships would be disturbed. The sense of hope multiracial spaces like Sophiatown presented in a racially divided society would be eroded.
Sekoto’s apparent objectivity allows him to be viewed as a sort of recorder of what would be lost. This is probably why the art he produced in France is perceived to be less valuable.
For Ernest Mancoba, the reverse would prove the case.
He escaped South Africa in the late thirties and while in France relinquished the desire to describe particularities. He achieved this through an abstract language.
Art should be universal and timeless, he observed in an interview. He succeeded; his abstract art is prominent on platforms such as the 1:54 Contemporary African Art Fair, where his work was shown in London by a Danish gallery last year.
This year, a solo exhibition of his work was held at Aicon Gallery in New York - they typically sell work by contemporary artists. Strauss & Co’s November auction includes an untitled abstract work as well as two teak sculptures, Head of Mapedi and another Head which appears like a mask.
While in Paris, visiting the photographer George Hallett in the late seventies, Peter Clarke felt compelled to create the work Homage to Dumile - in reference to Dumile Feni, another black South African artist in self-imposed exile.
Clarke was inspired by a series of Hallett’s photographs of Feni and a Unesco poster based on Feni’s art. Clarke echoes this in his painting, which will also go on Strauss & Co’s November 13 auction.
In it Clarke depicts a famous Feni work as a poster on a wall. Next to the characteristic Feni figure Clarke places text which reads: “to the brothers and sisters of the diaspora wherever they went wherever they might be.”
* Highlights of the November Strauss & Co auction will be exhibited from November 10-12 in Joburg at the Wanders Club in Illovo. The public is invited to join walkabouts before the auction there on November 13. For more information, visit www.straussart.co.za