Gerard Sekoto’s ‘illustrious album’


1 November 2004

It’s taken Barbara Lindop two years to bring to fruition a project she is intensely passionate about: recording the music and songs of the late exiled artist Gerard Sekoto onto “an illustrious album” due to hit the music stores before the end of the year.

Sekoto, born at the Botshabelo Lutheran Mission station near Middelburg in Limpopo Province in 1913, is acknowledged as one of the most important artistic figures in the development of South African contemporary art.

His achievements as an artist are widely known both in South Africa and internationally, and he has been honoured for his works with awards from the French government and an honorary doctorate from the University of the Witwatersrand.

What was not known, until recently, was that Sekoto also wrote music and lyrics.

Sekoto the musician

His musical creations lay hidden until 2002, when art historian Barbara Lindop discovered them among manuscripts repatriated from France in 1993.

“These songs found among Sekoto’s manuscripts were a unique and special find”, says Lindop. She believes they were written in the 1950s, describing their style as “’50s blues”.

“The lyrics convey a gentle humour, expressing a longing for his home as well as his determination to win favour with new friends in a foreign environment.”

In the 40 years he spent as an exile in Paris, in between painting and writing poetry and prose, Sekoto composed 21 songs with titles like “Zoomba Tchaka”, “All my lonely days”, “Lovers’ lullaby”, “Parree always is Parree” and “Shuffle on to Samba”.

“This is extraordinary music”, says Lindop, who is also the executive trustee and driving force behind the Gerard Sekoto Foundation. “I wanted to return this extraordinary musical heritage to the country.”

Three of the songs were published in 1956 in Les Editions Musicales, but the rest of the compositions have been brought to the South African public through a fund-raising project sponsored by the SABC, The National Lottery, De Beers, BMW and the French Embassy.

The songs were originally written for voice and piano, but their emotive power was such that it was decided that they should be rearranged and expanded. And so a nine-member band was formed under veteran singer/pianist Dimpie Tshabalala. They called themselves The Blue Heads, after Sekoto’s famous series of blue portraits based on a drawing of Miriam Makeba.

In making the recordings, says Lindop, they have tried to “retain the essential purity” of the music, even emulating the feel of the French vocalist from the original recordings. Twelve numbers have so far been completed.

Sekoto played in a nightclub in Paris, and Lindop says his musical influences were West African spiritual, Louis Armstrong, Harry Belafonte and Zulu images, despite that fact that he was northern Sotho.

Lindop reckons that when he arrived in France, Parisians knew of Zulus, probably through the slaughter of the French Prince Imperial in the Zulu Wars of the late 19th century, so he capitalised on that knowledge.

“Music came naturally to him, he thought musically”, she says.

Sekoto the artist

Sekoto lived in Sophiatown and Kliptown in Johannesburg before leaving South Africa for Paris, France in 1947. He never returned, spending the rest of his life in Paris, where he is buried.

Sekoto did not have access to colour pencils until he was a teenager. The introduction to colour revolutionised his work, and his earlier works depict the vibrancy and tensions of the townships during his formative years.

Song of the Pick
‘Song of the Pick’, 1946-47. (Photo: – Gerard Sekoto)

He did several paintings while in Sophiatown, the most famous of which is “Yellow Houses”, one of the Johannesburg Art Gallery’s prize possessions, and its first acquisition from a black artist.

While in France, Sekoto re-worked many of his subjects and explored different themes, all characterised by a deep sense of humanity.

His paintings, returned to South Africa partly through the efforts of the Gerard Sekoto Foundation, are a historical record of a now extinct way of life.

The Wits University Art Gallery houses Sekoto’s collection of 250-300 Soweto pieces, entitled the “Sowetan Collection”, painted between 1939 and 1989, which were originally purchased by Sowetan newspaper. Another collection of seven pieces is housed in the Constitutional Court Art Gallery in Johannesburg, on loan from the South African National Art Gallery in Cape Town.

Increased recognition

Towards the end of his life, Sekoto’s art increasingly gained recognition, mainly through the work of Lindop, whose research brought to life many paintings thought to have been lost.

Lindop has been involved in Sekoto’s life for the past 20 years, and through her correspondence with him was able to confirm details of his life before his death.

She has written three books about him, including “The Art of Gerard Sekoto”, in which she introduces his extraordinary life story accompanied by full colour plates of his most powerful works. The book was published in 1995, two years after Sekoto’s death in Paris in 1993.

Sekoto received a honorary doctorate from Wits University but refused to come back to South African to receive it, a condition of receiving the honour. The university eventually allowed him to receive it in Paris.

Lindop says that Sekoto was filled with bitter memories of his land of birth – when the Johannesburg Art Gallery bought his “Yellow Houses” in 1940, he had to pretend to be a cleaner to see his own painting on display in the gallery.

It was with these memories that he left, and despite the political changes in the country, he never wanted to return.

“He didn’t want to come back to South Africa”, says Lindop, “because he had become a French man.” Besides, says Lindop, living in Paris for 40 years, he became well known and was popular. “French people recognised and loved him”.

Source: City of Johannesburg