Arts and Culture 2007-2015

02May

Column: Sex scandals ... and Sekoto

 

The arts and humanities at the University of the Witwatersrand have been in the news recently – for all the wrong reasons. Between descriptions of “sex pests”, accounts of lecherous lecturers and even accusations of rape, journalists have found plenty of scandalous material to report on.

Those of us affiliated to Wits, staff and students alike, are angry. We are angry that, in at least one instance, the university’s legal representatives appear to have ignored complaints against a lecturer. We are angry that the basic trust and good faith on which all teacher-student relationships are built has been eroded. We are angry because an atmosphere of distrust and accusation and counter-accusation is open to exploitation on the part of both the accuser and the accused.

But we are also not going to lose perspective. We recognise that institutions of learning are not immune to the sexual pathologies so widespread in South Africa. We also recognise that the power dynamics in an educational environment further complicate the already-fraught politics of sex and gender, requiring carefully considered policies and procedures relating to sexual harassment.

And, most importantly, we are not going to let sex scandals affect the important work that the arts and humanities have to do in addressing social and political issues. This may entail fighting the lazy cliché of the reckless artist-academic who can’t control his (or her) libido. It may take the form of a festival such as Drama for Life’s SA Season 2013, currently underway, which directly addresses the nexus of “Sex, violence, culture and education”.

Or it may simply mean carrying on as usual, providing a necessary reminder of the productive interventions that institutions of research and learning can undertake regarding public perceptions about, and responses to, the arts. That, certainly, is what the Wits Art Museum (WAM) has achieved with “Song for Sekoto”.

There are many ways of touting this retrospective of Gerard Sekoto’s work. It is, technically, the most valuable exhibition ever held in South Africa – Sekoto has become something of a safe bet at art auctions and his work is highly prized internationally. But he is also a curiously marginal figure, arguably still under-appreciated in the country of his birth; in this light, the value of “Song for Sekoto” lies both in the sheer number of works collected and in the archival material on display, including letters, news clippings, photographs and even music scores.

Sekoto was not only a prolific painter, he was also an accomplished musician and composer. In fact, it was as a musician that he scraped a living at various points during the four decades that he spent in Paris – more than half of his career. Inevitably, then, Sekoto’s life and work were defined by the condition of self-imposed exile.

He left South Africa in 1947. Part of his motivation for going to Paris was no doubt to gain access to wider art networks, but he was also escaping the constraints placed upon him as a black man by oppressive legislation and pervasive racism. Yet even in France he was not free; his liberty was restricted by penury and for sustained periods he was a ward of the state.

The exhibition space is dominated by the works he produced during the eight-year period prior to his departure from South Africa. These include iconic paintings such as the Song of the Pick in oil and watercolour, the Yellow Houses of both District Six and Sophiatown, and Mine Boy (inspired by Peter Abrahams’ novel of the same title), but each of his portraits of individuals and scenes from township life merits attention.

A smaller upstairs gallery contains a selection from his time in France and, for a year, Senegal. Curator Mary-Jane Darroll candidly admits that she feels this work is inferior – that Sekoto “lost” something when he left South Africa. He kept a close eye on events back home, however, and various paintings bear quiet witness to his outrage. Indeed, this exhibition gives the lie to claims that Sekoto was not a “political” artist.

He is, nonetheless, a figure who seems not to have the endorsement of the powers-that-be. “Song for Sekoto” has been funded almost entirely by the private sector; without support from the Department of Arts and Culture, the exhibition is unlikely to tour to other parts of the country. Now that is an arts scandal.  

 

* "Song for Sekoto" is at the Wits Art Museum until 2nd June

 

   

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