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July 17, 2018

Painter, Poet, Pianist

Charles Sekano Axhibits at Red Hill Art Gallery

 Hellmuth and Erica Rossler-Musch of Red Hill Art Gallery in Nairobi are at it again, calling attention to another legendary artist that has influenced the East African art scene. This time around they are showcasing works by South African artist Charles Sekano who lived in Kenya for 30 years.

From their personal collection and two other private collections, they are displaying 28 works, approximately 71x50cm in size, ranging from Sh180,000 to Sh320,000.  All untitled and undated, we are informed that the works were created in Kenya between 1980 and 1995.

Last month, at the first Circle Art Auction, we saw a Sekano sell for Sh469,000, well over the estimated range (Sh280,000 - Sh350,000). Popular with both first-time and seasoned bidders, the Red Hill show comes at a good time for those who left the Circle auction without a Sekano in hand.

And there’s an interesting debate about Charles Sekano. While some individuals think that his artwork is inherently attractive, others say it is the context in which the work was produced that gives it meaning. 

Sekano was born in Sophiatown, Johannesburg (1943). Having escaped the ruthlessness of apartheid in 1967, he was exiled in Kenya, where he stayed until 1997. Assuming a bohemian lifestyle as a poet, a jazz pianist for local pubs, and an artist that apparently lived amongst his female subjects, Sekano seemed to celebrate the freedom that Nairobi life offered.

We have heard that it was under Ruth Schaffner of Gallery Watatu that he had his first exhibition in 1982 and, like so many of the Watatu artists, it was his greenness; his inexperience combined with the inherent desire to create that resonated with art collectors.

And so, from witnessing Sophiatown being destroyed by the authorities and his family forced in to segregated districts in Soweto to becoming a world renowned artist whose lively works have been exhibited from Germany and Holland to Japan and the USA, there is a certain tragedy and comedy to Sekano’s life thus far.  Now, what of his art?

Image number 22 is an oil pastel on paper. In a monotone palette with varying shades of green including olive, emerald, forest and a bright yellow-green, the image is a venn-diagram of female faces, their side-profiles set horizontally or vertically so that the nose of one woman forms the chin of another, the eye of one woman working as the cheek of the next.

A lively concoction of green silhouettes, the palette conjures Henri Rousseau’s garden landscapes while the incisive outlines that contour and dissect the faces scream Picasso. The definition of the shapes in the image combined with the brilliant colours evokes Toulouse Lautrec’s post-impressionist drawings and the forms that mount each other conjure Braque’s cubism.

But call it this or that; these genres didn’t matter much to Sekano. Although he might have once compared his female side-portraits to those found in Egyptian art, these types of references were not his focus. It appears that Sekano concentrates on the construction of festive images, preferably those that pay homage to his favourite subject matter– women.

In fact, aside from a compelling pastel drawing of seagulls by the seashore (Image number 8) all the images at the current exhibition in Red Hill flaunt the female form to some degree or another.  Some of his women are clothed, some nude, some at public venues, others sitting in private. We catch a few men here and there. We don’t see any of Sekanos village scenes or the musicians he sometimes paints.

But from a few of the Sekano works at Red Hill you might be able to guess that he can muster a melody, that he himself was a musician.  Image number 22 has a symphonic quality about it. All the parts and colours work together harmoniously. In the bottom half of the image especially, the three similar female faces, set in different notes of green, fuse in to each other. There is a graceful flow to it, as synchronisation that summons the first few notes of a jazz song. 

But not all the works at the exhibition have the vitality of image number 22. Some of the drawings are lacklustre and in others, the women bear a languid look that is somewhat unsettling. From Rhodia Mann’s (one of the three founders of Gallery Watatu) private collection we catch three colourful images but here again; the women bare that listless look that we have seen so many East African artists produce. It really has you wondering: Are their lifeless expressions deliberate? Are they an imitation of another artists work or are they the consequence of a heedless hand, perhaps the lack of attention to detail?

In oil pastel again, Image number 11 reveals a front profile of a woman’s face. Her face is bisected by an asymmetrical line that runs from her forehead, follows the contour of her nose and cuts through her lips to her chin.  Her eyes are disturbingly dissimilar. Using a different palette on each side of her face, Sekano draws blaring contour lines down the woman’s cheeks. He uses loud clashing colours. Two quick red circles render hoop earrings and frenzied, blue lines strewn around her face work as hair.

The image has an amateur quality about it. Perhaps this is its charm but still, it is unclear whether the blundering strokes are accidental or whether the offhand, lopsided feel is an intentional effect. Many artists represented by Gallery Watatu under Ruth Schaffner, were encouraged to preserve their naïve style. Scribbly, multi-hued works by artists like Wanyu Brush for example have been marketed internationally for their raw, unadulterated essence.

From a large body of Sekano’s works, every so often he strikes a chord. In oil pastel and acrylic paint, Image number 7 is one such works that hits the nail on the head. It features an androgynous looking female attired in a tip-hat and pin-striped waiter suit with a bow tie. The robust red, yellow and blue palette catches your eye. The waitress’s bold blue face contrasts beautifully with the popping yellow brim of her hat, which slopes sideways across her head. The image has a spunky, sophisticated feel.

But being around the Sekano drawings at Red Hill seems to invoke more questions than answers. Is Sekano’s style actually his own or it is a sort of forced African aesthetic?  Has he been restricted or instructed to remain naïve in order to continue producing works that can be marketed as African? We begin to wonder just how influential the agents and curators in the making of an artist.

Is the success of an artist dictated by their talent and message or is it governed by the agent’s capacity to tell a good story?  The real question is: Are we being told what to love or would we love Sekano anyway?

Red Hill Art Gallery is between Banana Hill and Ngecha Village. The exhibition will run until the end of January.

 

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