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  • Natalie Ilsley

African Modernist Art

This month’s blog is written by Natalie Ilsley, a PhD researcher at the University of Manchester. Her research focuses on narratives of resilience with asylum-seeking and refugee women in Stoke-on-Trent. Natalie collaborates with the South African Modernism team on the schools project funded by an Arts and Humanities Research Council North West Consortium Doctoral Training Partnership grant; the Research Impact Fund (University of Salford); and the School of Arts, Media and Creative Technology (University of Salford).


The attention to colonial resistance, fragmentation, and transnational networks that underpin literary modernism is paralleled in the broader, modernist art movement. In the same way that modernist writers from South Africa were overlooked in favour of James Joyce, T.S. Eliot and Virginia Woolf, for example, South African artists also struggled to gain recognition for their artistic practice. Under colonialism and apartheid, black artists in particular were excluded from entering artistic institutions, advanced education, and exhibition venues, let alone featuring in them. They faced a very limited horizon of opportunity to paint back to the imperial centre. Access was determined by the white middle classes, as the architects of art history and artistic institutions (such as, patrons, critics, collectors, artists and audience), who held a romantic fascination with the “other”. As Keith Moxey points out, “[c]ultural artifacts were ascribed the status of art only so long as they remained traditional, that is, distinctly non-European”.[1] Despite this fascination, artwork offering an alternate reality that betrayed the awareness of the intervention of the colonisers in the lives of the colonised was to be “avoided as derivative and second-rate”.[2] The irony! This view not only perpetuated the sense of superiority of the white colonisers, but it also excluded multiple people and histories from participating in the formation of art history. With reference to modernism in general, Partha Mitter argues:


Set against the originary discourse of the avant-garde, emanating from these metropolitan centers, other modernisms were silenced as derivative and suffering from a time lag because of their geographic locations. Yet the significant point is that the center-periphery relation is not only one of geography but also of power and authority.[3]


As Mitter suggests, modernist artistic productions in Asia, Africa, and Latin America were largely ignored by Western art history. Illuminating the role that these artists assumed by forging, practicing, and shaping key artistic movements, such as modernism, is a key concern for scholars engaged in the arts and humanities. As the team working on the South African Modernism 1880-2020 project argue, modernism was dependent on transnational cultural influences. Take Pablo Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d'Avignon (1907), for example. This work could not exist without the interface of African forms and European ideas. Perhaps best placed to illustrate this is South African artist Gerard Sekoto (1913–1993), whose work was influenced by the socio-politics and everyday life of urban settings, including District Six and Sophiatown. John Peffer, who explores Sekoto’s development of ‘black modernism’, argues that his art “preserved the promise of a future non-racial South Africa” as it depicted his personal exploration of the novelty of urban life.[4]


Born into the family of a Christian preacher and teacher in 1913, at the Botshabelo mission station in Middleburg, an area that is today called Mapumalanga, Sekoto belonged to a new South African black elite. During the same year, the Parliament of South Africa passed the ‘Natives Land Act’ —the first of the segregation legislations. The exploitative and degrading treatment of non-white South Africans that soon followed influenced Sekoto, and many other artists, academics, and activists, to paint back and illuminate the experiences of marginalised people, many of which eventually left South Africa into a self-imposed exile.[5] During his career, Sekoto achieved great success and gained significant recognition. His work Yellow Houses was the first work of modern art by a black artist to be collected by a major art institution in South Africa (Johannesburg Art Gallery) in 1940. However, the increasing marginalisation of black South Africans caused him to leave. Sekoto left in 1947, travelling first to London and eventually Paris where he stayed until his death in 1993. In London, he spent three weeks in the company of fellow exiles, including the South African author of Mine Boy, Peter Abrahams, and the Nigerian sculptor, Ben Enwonwu. Prior to this, Sekoto interacted with many other like-minded artists. He met with members of the ‘New Group’, made up of young progressive South African artists who had studied in Europe. Similar to Sekoto, they also opposed the conservative values championed by artistic institutions. These interactions were part of what Peffer defines as ‘grey areas’: sites and locations where black and white South African artists and culture workers mingled.[6]


Sekoto’s work reflects what Peffer defines as the “struggle for a nonracial aesthetic practice in South Africa within overlapping contexts of the modernist reception of indigenous approaches to art [and] the draconian racial policies’ of the emergent apartheid state”.[7] His work, then, is perhaps best known for its formal study and poignant documentation of the quotidian lives of the Christian cosmopolitan black middle class and working poor. At the time, the majority of white South Africans assumed that black townships were a place of overcrowding and unsanitary conditions. The scenes depicted by Sekoto, however, offered a new perspective, painting people a positive light, with an angle of vision that was usually at eye-level or from the back. Painting from these angles meant that he was able to illustrate the people and their activities from a respectful and considerate distance—and he invites viewers to do the same.




Sekoto’s Portrait of a Young Man Reading (c. 1946–1947) combines bold and intense shades of white, yellow, and blue with sketched lines, offering a view into everyday life. It is neither threatening nor daunting. The subject almost appears angelic, as though reading gives them a sense of peace. As Peffer argues, it demonstrates Sekoto’s motivation – which is line with the intent of other black artists – “to illustrate the lives of cosmopolitan Africans in an urban setting in sympathetic terms, and in a roughly naturalistic manner, in order to express their right to access the city, to advanced education, and to modernity at large”.[8]





Another one of Sekoto’s perhaps lesser-known earlier works, Three Men at a Railway Station (1940), also captures this simplicity. Leaning casually, the three men in the foreground are coded in neutral, earthy, subtle colours and appear at ease—a contrast to the industrial setting of a railway station. In fact, other than the title, there are no signifiers to imply that the three men are placed inside a station. Instead, the viewer is drawn in by the stark, luminous white background framed by the windows. Sekoto, then, reclaims this chaotic space of transience and relocation into one of peace and tranquillity. The absence of faces in this painting offers a distorted and unusual perspective absent from Sekoto’s other works, perhaps to denote the frustration of black South Africans, who were segregated and stereotyped as if they were faceless masses. This painting also provides much of the imagery on the South African Modernism 1880-2020 project’s website (permissions kindly granted by the Gerard Sekoto Foundation). It is chosen, here, precisely because it depicts African modernity (with the association of the railway station) conveyed using modernist techniques, such as the abstract and impressionist figures of the three men, and the non-realist representation of the surroundings.


According to Sylvester Okwunodu Ogbechie, “the search for a modernist identity is tied to the anti-colonial struggle that ultimately codified into broad independence and liberation movements”.[9] I argue that Sekoto’s portrayals of the quotidian coupled by his interactions with like-minded people, who were painting against colonial rule and its consequences, can be taken as evidence that these movements were (and still remain) vital for modernist expressions of cultural resistance to colonialism.


[1] Moxey, Keith P. F. Visual Time: the Image in History. Durham: Duke University Press, 2013. pp. 14. [2] Moxey, Visual Time, pp. 15. [3] Mitter, Partha. “Decentering Modernism: Art History and Avant-Garde Art from the Periphery,” The Art Bulletin 90, no. 4 (2008): 540. [4] Peffer, John. “The Grey Areas of Modernism and ‘Black Art’ in South Africa,” Critical Interventions 2, no. 3-4 (2008): 176. [5] Reid, Chloë. “The Artist/Sekoto’s Life.” The Gerard Sekoto Foundation, accessed November 25, 2021. http://www.gerardsekotofoundation.com/artistoverview.htm. [6] Peffer, “The Grey Areas,” 178. [7] Peffer, “The Grey Areas,” 185. [8] Peffer, “The Grey Areas,” 181. [9] Okwunodu Ogbechie, Sylvester. “Art, African Identities, and Colonialism,” in Martin S. Shanguhyia and Toyin Falola (eds) The Palgrave Handbook of African Colonial and Postcolonial History. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2018. pp. 444.

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