What you see: Three School Girls, an oil on board painted by South African artist Gerard Sekoto sometime between 1940 and 1947. Bonhams estimates it at £120,000 to £180,000 ($160,000 to $230,000).
Who was Gerard Sekoto? Born in 1913 in what was then the South African province of Eastern Transvaal, he began showing artistic talent as a teenager. Art schools aimed at black students didn’t exist in South Africa in the early 20th century, so he trained as a teacher instead and studied art as best he could. He lived in several different areas in South Africa before leaving for Paris in 1947 for what’s been described as a “self-imposed exile”. Sekoto spent a year in Senegal in 1966, but he never made his home on the African continent again. In his final years, he started to gain recognition for his work. He died in Paris in 1993, at the age of 79.
The expert: Eliza Sawyer, a specialist in modern and contemporary African art at Bonhams.
How prolific was Sekoto? It largely depends on which period you’re talking about. The period of Three School Girls was not so prolific. It was before he left South Africa for Paris. Those works are rarer, and hard to come by. He didn’t have easy access to materials, and he was still finding his voice. He was much more prolific after he left for Paris in 1947.
How often do pre-1947 Sekoto works come to market? There have been a handful in the last few years. When they come up, they tend to fetch high sums. His most valuable period is between when he left Sophiatown [a township near Johannesburg] and when he left for Paris. It was a very short period of his life–seven years. Maybe one Sekoto work a year comes up from that time. What’s rare for this sale we have in September is a particular collector bought two works from a Sekoto show in 1947 [and consigned them both]. To have two works from that period in the same sale is quite extraordinary, but they’re from the same collection.
How do we know this Sekoto painting dates to between 1940 and 1947? The most obvious point would be the subject matter–three little girls on an almost-mud street in a township. Parisian pictures tend to be of jazz bars and the Seine. The other thing that’s distinctive is the color palette. Up to 1947, Sekoto gravitated toward a very earthy palette of reds, browns, and yellows that reflected the colors of the ground in South African townships, and reflected the kinds of clothes people wore and the dyes that were available. Also, in 1940, he met Judith Gluckman, an artist who introduced him to oil painting. The fact that this is painted in oils and not household poster paint suggests it was executed after 1940.
The surface of the paint looks rugged and thick. Is that typical for Sekoto? What I’d say is unusual about the surface of the work is how unspoiled it is. Gerard Sekoto did use impasto [he painted in thick layers] and he mixed sand and grit in to create texture. Gritty, thick texture is more characteristic of his early style. But most of his works from this period don’t survive well. They have craquelure [the paint is covered with a network of cracks], and the surface attracted dirt. To see a work in this good a condition, with no paint loss and minor dirt, is incredibly unusual. Later, he worked in watercolors and gouache, and his brush strokes were more fluid and loose.
How did Sekoto work doing that seven-year period in the 1940s, when he painted Three School Girls? He would carry notepaper in his pockets. The people he saw were not accustomed to people making their portraits, so he would pull out a piece of scrap paper, sketch quickly, and come to his studio with his pockets full of ideas.
This painting is relatively small, measuring 15 15/16 inches by 19 7/8 inches. Is that because he was working from small sketches done on scrap paper? Earlier pieces tend to be smaller than works created in Paris. It’s partly related to the Post-It note size of his sketches and partly from an awareness of using up all his material. In this period, we see him work the same piece of canvas over and over, particularly as he tried to learn his craft.
Three School Girls is fresh to market, having gone from the late 1940s selling exhibition to the consigner to Bonhams. Is that unusual for a Sekoto? Yes, it is quite unusual. I’d say Sekoto works have hugely appreciated in value over the last 10 years, partly due to his status as a pioneer of South African modernism.
Did Bonhams play a role in raising Sekoto’s profile? In 2008, we were the first international auction house to hold a stand-alone sale of South African art, and Gerard Sekoto was one of the artists we featured. We put up a work from his District 6 period, which is a few years before the period when he made Three School Girls, for an estimate of £200,000 to £300,000, and it made in excess of £600,000. It was an eye-opening moment for us and for the art market as well–it showed that Sekoto is an artist to take very seriously.
What’s the world auction record for a Sekoto? It’s held by Bonhams for a work sold for £602,400 ($784,694) in 2011, depicting a yellow house he saw in District 6. He didn’t live in this particular house, but he’d walk past it on a day-to-day basis between 1942 and 1945. It’s very similar in style and period to Three School Girls, which probably dates to 1945 to 1947. It was also painted in gritty impasto, and is around the same size as Three School Girls.
Does Three School Girls have the potential to set a new auction record for the artist? When I saw the work, my first thought was it really is something special, potentially a record painting. We haven’t seen one of comparable quality and style since 2011 [the year that Bonhams sold Yellow Houses, District Six]. The market has changed and demand has changed, but if any painting has a shot at breaking the record for a Sekoto, it could be this one.
What about Portrait of a Man (Lentswana), the other Sekoto painting that the consigner sent to this auction? It’s from the same period and is around the same size. The reason we put a slightly higher estimate on Three School Girls is it’s a more universal image. The other is a wonderfully intimate human portrait, but some collectors are not comfortable having particular likenesses hanging in their home. It’s like having a picture of another person’s grandfather. That’s the thought behind this particular estimate.
What is Three School Girls like in person? The first thing that strikes you is the size. In this day and age, particularly if you collect contemporary art, you’re used to monumental canvases. This painting is different. It’s intimate in scale, and it draws you in. The colors are warm and earthy. They’re not colors that are considered colorful or sexy for an urban apartment. But it transports you to a totally different time, a totally different country. You can feel the heat rising up from the dusty road the girls are walking on.
Why will this painting stick in your memory? Having been a schoolgirl myself, it’s quite a nostalgic image. I’m a white British woman living in London, and looking at it brings back memories. I remember being dressed in my schoolgirl uniform, walking to school with my friends. The artist somehow manages to forge a connection I find quite touching.
Text is copyright Sheila Gibson Stoodley. Image is courtesy of Bonhams.
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