Sekoto for a new generation

2013-08-23 00:00

GERARD Sekoto is widely regarded by many in the art world as a pioneer in black art in South Africa. Now, thanks to the publication of the children’s story Shorty & Billy Boy, a new generation of South Africans will be able to appreciate his extraordinary talent.

The manuscript for the book was discovered in a private collection of Sekoto’s sketches, artwork, letters and memoirs, which was repatriated to South Africa from France.

According to the Gerard Sekoto Foundation, the story, penned in 1974, was probably created by the artist as a sentimental souvenir of his own childhood memories, or composed as a gift for the children of friends, as he often made greeting cards with accompanying illustrations.

Shorty & Billy Boy is a delightful book, filled with character illustrations that help to tell the tale of two troublesome township dogs, the Shorty and Billy Boy of the title, who steal fruit, eggs and money from their neighbours in Grasslands.

When the angry townsfolk demand they be punished for their crimes, the two lads hit the road and head for fresh pastures: in this case the town of Porcupine Hills.

They’re soon back to their old tricks, but their new victims are less forgiving and one night Billy Boy is caught red-handed with his paws in the chicken coop. He is sent to jail where he dreams about the kindness of others, and comes to realise that good deeds are the true measure of freedom. At the back of the book is an added treat —reproductions of some of Sekoto’s paintings, including a portrait of the artist, a black and white image of him at work, and biographical information about the man who has become known for his ability to capture the humanity and realism of everyday scenes, and for giving dignity to black South Africans. The trustees of the Gerard Sekoto Foundation decided to publish the book to celebrate the centenary year of Sekoto’s life. Their aim is to build awareness of Sekoto’s legacy and to encourage literacy and art awareness.

Sekoto, who spent nearly 45 years living in exile, was born in 1913 in Botshabelo, a German Lutheran mission station near Middelburg in the then Transvaal, to Andreas Sekoto, a priest and school teacher, and his wife, Anne.

In spite of the oppressive nature of life for a black artist living in South Africa, Sekoto, who was self-taught, managed to achieve a fair amount of recognition while living in Sophiatown, District Six and Eastwood, respectively.

His paintings from this period evoke the vibrancy and energy of the cultural activity and tension of the townships, and serve as a historical record of a way of life, as these areas were subsequently destroyed. In 1947, he left South Africa for Paris, remaining in the French city until his death in 1993. After some initial struggles in exile, Sekoto’s reputation grew steadily and the following years saw him exhibiting fairly extensively in Paris and further afield in Stockholm, Vichy, Venice, Nemours, Senegal, Denmark and around the United States.

In South Africa he was not forgotten, and his work was exhibited in Pretoria, Johannesburg and Cape Town.

• Shorty & Billy Boy by Gerard Sekoto is published by Jacana. The book costs R110 and all royalties will go to the Gerard Sekoto Foundation.

ELWYN Jenkins will be looking at artist Gerard Sekoto’s only children’s book, Shorty & Billy Boy, at this weekend’s Midlands Literary Festival at Yellowwood Café in Howick.

Organised by Darryl David, the festival, which runs until Sunday, starts today with a literary tour of Pietermaritzburg, taking in writers with connections to the city, including Alan Paton, Bessie Head, Ronnie Kasrils, Kobus Moolman, Tom Sharpe, Antjie Krog and Dana Snyman. The tour is presented in association with the Centre for African Literary Studies and the Alan Paton Centre. Booking is essential at or 081 391 8689. Also taking part in the festival are Kasrils, who is launching the fourth edition of his autobiography, Armed & Dangerous; Judge Chris Nicholson, Carol Campbell and Barbara Erasmus; chef Jackie Cameron; poet Shabbir Banoobhai; historian Jeff Guy; Scott Couper; Ian Player; Paul Ross; Chris Ballantyne; Jane Harley on self-publishing; and David himself, putting on his other hat as a recorder of platteland churches.

• For details and the programme, contact Darryl David at or 081 391 8689 or on Facebook: Midlands Meander Literary Festival.

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