Gerard Sekoto, Under the Umbrella, 1967
Gerard Sekoto (1913-1993) was a major South African painter and musician. Sekoto was the son of a missionary, and music was a part of his life since childhood. His affinity for visual art emerged in his teenage years, and he originally studied sculpture. However the stylistic strictures that he was forced to adhere to were to confining and paternalistic for Sekoto, so he decided to pursue art on his own. He spent a few years as a teacher, painting in his spare time. He submitted his work to an art contest and was awarded second prize. Soon after, in 1938, he moved to Johannesburg to pursue his career as an artist. He immediately had success and held his first solo show in 1939. In 1940 the Johannesburg Art Gallery purchased one of his paintings, which became the first painting by a black artist to hang in a major South African museum. In 1947 he left South Africa and moved to Paris, largely due to the oppression and second-class status he had endured. Sekoto continued to paint, but his first years in Paris were very difficult, and he also worked as a jazz pianist. Eventually he found his footing and had success both as a painter and musician, recording several records and composing twenty-nine songs. Much of Sekoto's work is political, or at least social commentary, and depicts the struggles of South Africans. Many of his paintings feature bright colors and intense light, and abstracted forms that recall both traditional art and European modernism. He also did a number of intensely evocative portraits. Under the Umbrella has a more muted tonality than most of Sekoto's work. Painted in Paris, it seems to simply show a day on the street. Whether there is any racial content to this painting is difficult to discern; the two central figures—those actually seated under the umbrella—do appear to be black and are wearing the bright garments that African figures do in Sekoto's other paintings. However, in this case that does not really affect the narrative. The two women sit and watch while other pass by. At first glance, this does seem to be a rainy day as the title suggests. The coloring is grey and there seems to be water on the ground reflecting the scene. But notice the patch of blue sky peeking through the trees. This seems to be the end of a rainstorm, where the sun has begun to brighten the sky.