- Gerard Sekoto
- THE MILKMAN
- Signed G Sekoto (lower left)
- Oil on canvas laid down on board
- 20 by 23 3/4 in.
- 50.8 by 60.3 cm
- Painted circa 1945-1947.
Thence by descent to the present owner
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Gerard Sekoto (1913 -1993) had trained as a school teacher but decided, as a self taught artist, to launch his professional art career in 1938. He left the rural areas of northern South Africa to travel to Johannesburg, to live with cousins, in Sophiatown, where free association between different races was still possible. Here he was introduced to the liberal artistic White community and amongst others, met an artist, Judith Gluckman, who offered to teach him how to paint with oils. He quickly assimilated these techniques and was soon recognized as an artist of note in Johannesburg art circles. He wished to familiarize himself with the country and in 1942, having sold enough paintings to pay his way, travelled to Cape Town to live in District 6 where his talent soon attracted the attention of both artists and collectors. Again, he quickly integrated into this community. In 1945, as part of his long term plan to travel to France, he returned to live with his mother in Eastwood, Pretoria.
It was here that paintings such as The Milkman and The Donkey Cart were produced.
Apartheid policies, legislated from 1948, resulted in the destruction of Sophiatown, District 6 and Eastwood in the 1950's.
Sekoto's paintings remain as vivid historical records of these vibrant urban environments and the people who lived there.
The Eastwood period (1945 -1947) is generally regarded as Sekoto's 'golden period' as he created many great works during this time. He was living in a relaxed environment, closely surrounded by his family and confident in his vision and direction. Spurred on by his knowledge of preparing for two exhibitions in 1947, he was able to work with energy and freedom.
In both The Milkman and The Donkey Cart, his use of color is both sensitive and intuitive, catching the effect of bright sunlight on the dry, dusty township roads and the surrounding countryside. The Milkman describes the implicit poverty of the barefooted residents, as they gather to purchase their milk. The unapologetic rendering of the donkey carts, used to deliver essential services to the township communities, invites entry into an 'other' world, one where people were separated apart, in this case because of skin pigmentation.
The idiosyncratic depiction of 'Sekotian' hats, legs, feet and donkey ears identify Sekoto's own observant personality and his unique creativity and originality.
1947 proved to be one of the most significant years for Sekoto, who, at the height of his artistic career in South Africa, chose to leave his country of birth for what would become permanent exile in France.
Restricted by the existing race legislation, which prevented both an intellectual and emotional freedom as well as suffering other daily humiliations which people of color were forced to endure, he planned to travel to France to expose himself to what he believed would be the center of the international art world.
He held two one-man exhibitions in April and July of 1947, at the Christi's Gallery in Pretoria and the Gainsborough Gallery in Johannesburg. The Milkman (no. 31) and The Donkey Cart (no. 32) were both exhibited at the Gainsborough Gallery Exhibition priced at 28 and 30 guineas respectively. It is documented that 9 paintings sold on the opening night.
Both paintings caught the attention of art critics of the liberal South African daily papers and offer insight into the contemporary view and empathy in which Sekoto, a Black artist, was viewed:
"His street scenes and the donkey cart which features in two paintings are redolent of the atmosphere of the location and its society; and there is force in his grouping of figures with their backs towards the viewer."
"He has now arrived at a stage in which form and drawing and tone have become important. In addition to a roundness and solidity in his figures, they are now beginning to live and move, as in the driver and the donkeys in no 32. Sekoto has wrested something of his own out of urban Africa and scenes such as The Milkman bears the stamp of his personality."
"After years of hard struggle, Sekoto's work is acclaimed by art critics for his 'pure singing colour' and 'figures that live and move.' Sekoto, the man, has been faced with all sorts of obstacles to leading a full cultural life that must be so essential - a part of the segregation policy inflicted on his people. Concerts, libraries, art galleries have been closed to him. As an artist he has felt these handicaps all the more keenly."
"His achievements are all the more remarkable under these circumstances. His street scene in Eastwood, and Donkey Cart exhibited in the Gainsborough Galleries show him to be above all else a painter alive to the problems and lives of his people. He feels and can portray the rhythm and pulsation of their music - in colors somber or bright, he paints the sadness or gaiety of their lives."
Sotheby's thanks Barbara Lindop, author of Gerard Sekoto, Randburg, South Africa, 1988, for contributing this essay.