A MATTER OF NATIONAL HERITAGE: Early Gerard Sekoto painting, In the Beer Hall, considered too significant to leave South Africa
Aspire Art Auctions recently unveiled an early painting by celebrated South African artist, Gerard Sekoto. Titled In the beer hall and painted in c.1939/40, the work was initially intended for auction in Paris as part of the Modern & Contemporary African Art sale, in collaboration with the French auction house Piasa, in June. However, after careful consideration and in discussion with the South African Heritage Resources Agency (SAHRA), In the beer hall will now remain in the country and be sold by Aspire in September.
Gerard Sekoto, In the beer hall, c. 1939/40, oil on canvas, 41 x 51 cm, Estimate: R1,500,000–2,000,000
Painted before Sekoto left South Africa for France, In the beer hall shows a scene of patrons inside an informal beer hall; men gathering at the end of the day, the slowly setting sun casting long shadows where they stand or sit together as they enjoy a flask of beer. Sekoto moved to Sophiatown in 1938, and it is likely he depicted a beer hall in this bustling, cultural hub of Johannesburg.
It is this place and this time that Sekoto brings to life in this exquisite painting, evoking the lives lived there in the late 1930s. Alive to the scene before him, Sekoto depicts his fellow human beings with sensitivity, warmth and empathy. Ultimately, this painting is one of the earliest images of black people, painted sympathetically by a black artist.
Born in Mpumalanga in 1913, just as the Land Act was implemented – an act which segregated South African citizens on the basis of their race – Gerard Sekoto was one of the country’s many black intelligentsia who were driven into self-imposed exile in the hopes of pursuing a better life and successful career abroad. Sekoto left South Africa for Paris in 1947, where he lived and worked as an artist, and sadly never returned until his death in 1993.
While Sekoto gained recognition in Europe, and continued to exhibit in Johannesburg and Cape Town, the artist’s works produced in South Africa from 1938 until he left the country are today considered to be his ‘golden era’ and regarded as the most important. His first exhibition took place at the Gainsborough Gallery in 1939, and in 1940 the Johannesburg Art Gallery purchased one of his paintings for the gallery’s permanent collection – a momentous occasion as this was the first work by a black artist to enter the collection of any South African museum. In the beer hall carries great significance and, having been included in one of the artist’s first exhibitions, may well be one of his earliest oil on canvas works to come to market.
Established in 2000, SAHRA is mandated to protect South Africa’s cultural heritage. In accordance with the National Heritage Resources Act (NHRA), SAHRA is responsible for the management and promotion of the country’s diverse heritage resources. In line with this, and in recognition of In the beer hall as: “…of outstanding significance by reason of its close association with South African history [and] culture, its aesthetic qualities, [and] its value in the study of the arts…”, SAHRA has ruled that the painting may not be exported from South Africa.
SAHRA’s view is that the painting: “…is of such a degree of national importance that its loss to South Africa would significantly diminish [the] national heritage”. Sekoto’s portrayals of people in Sophiatown, District Six and Eastwood from the 1930s and 40s provide a unique and rare insight into the experiences of his subjects and are as such deemed to be of great importance to the National Estate.
“Handling this exceptional national treasure by the father of black modernism in South Africa is not only a great privilege and responsibility for Aspire, but indeed an honour for which we are perfectly positioned and well-equipped” comments Ruarc Peffers, Aspire’s Managing Director. Aspire has achieved great success in its strategic approach to develop appreciation and value for rare and increasingly sought-after artworks by black, largely under-appreciated artists from the twentieth century. In 2019, Aspire sold another early Sekoto painting, Lady in Red, for over R1.1 million in Johannesburg.
Gerard Sekoto, Lady in Red, c.1940
The company has established itself as a champion of this specialised collecting segment over the past four years of its operation and has achieved notable success in developing value and building market knowledge in what is becoming a much better understood and more venerated area of South African art. Aspire holds a number of global and South African records for sales in the black modernist segment of South African art. These records include obtaining the highest price for a drawing by Dumile Feni, Children under Apartheid (1987), which achieved over R1.2 million in 2017 and the highest price ever fetched at auction for a work by sculptor Sydney Kumalo, Mythological Rider (1970), which reached above R1.9 million, also in 2017.
In the beer hall is currently in Johannesburg and can be viewed by appointment. Estimated at R1, 500 000–2, 000 000, the work will form part of Aspire Art Auction’s next sale of Modern and Contemporary Art in September 2020. Any collector interested in owning the painting In the beer hall will need to house the work in South Africa in accordance with SAHRA’s decision.