Charles Sekano, the South African artist and musician, lived in Kenya from 1967 to 1997 and now lives in Pretoria, South Africa.
It was in Nairobi in the 1960s, amid the very real isolation of exile that Sekano forged himself into both self taught artist and musician and where he worked as a Jazz pianist in the multiracial bars and nightclubs of this rough edged African metropolis. Here he lived life in the tradition of a romantic bohemian artist and musician, developing his own version of the three Rs – ‘the three Ps’ – Painting, Poetry and Piano. Like Degas and Toulouse Lautrec before him, living amongst his, mostly female, subjects.
His artistic expression was and is informed by the sense of loss experienced after his family were uprooted and by the resultant severing of family bonds. Women, for Sekano, – those that he immortalises in his works – became his world and his artistic language.
Sekano explains, ‘The whole idea is a symbolic relationship. Even the theme “Woman” seems to be remembering my mother, my sisters. I’m trying to live on a higher level with them because I have no communication to show that I am attached to them. They are inseparable from me. There is no border. This Woman theme is my landscape. The only piece of property I own. Woman is the only country I have.’
Apart from two fine works from the late 1980s the paintings in this exhibition has been produced in the last two years.
Born in 1945, Charles Sekano holds a unique place in the story of South African art and, following a 30-year exile in Nairobi, a major position in the history of Kenyan art.
Whilst a young man Sekano’s life changed forever when his beloved birthplace, Sophiatown, was raised to the ground by the apartheid regime in South Africa and his family forcibly resettled in Soweto. The impact of this upheaval led to the shattering of the artist’s network of family friends and ultimately to the tragic loss of his father and his family life. For Sekano, Sophiatown is the magical mythical city of his youth and remains the inspiration for much of his later artistic work.
After joining the Pan African Congress as a military recruit in the 1960s, Sekano found himself in Ghana, Algeria, Tanzania and later as a refugee in Kenya. Facing the loneliness of exile in Nairobi, Sekano dug deep to invent himself as a poet, painter and pianist (to which he refers to as the three “Ps”). In all of these artistic genres, he is entirely self-taught. With his flamboyant clothes and haunting jazz piano, Sekano became an influential figure in Nairobi during the seventies and eighties, inspiring a generation of young Kenyan painters and musicians in a country weighed down by political and artistic repression.
Much of Sekano’s artistic inspiration comes from the twilight world of the nightclubs and bars where he worked as a musician. His art can be seen as a long series of portraits of, more often than not, beautiful women sensitively and acutely observed. It serves as a tribute to the female form and a testament to the diversity of people in Kenya. This is partly due to the complex mix of ethnicities within the country and partly because of the constant flow of refugees from other African countries – exposing the intellectual futility of generalizing African identity.
After Nelson Mandela’s election to the presidency in 1994, Sekano returned to a South Africa that didn’t know him – the fate of many a returning exile. His career as an artist started in earnest when he met Ruth Schaffner of Gallery Watatu in Nairobi. Through her support Sekano started to gain serious recognition in Europe and America, as well as Kenya.
In 2007 Sekano met Professor Alexander Duffey who set about writing a biographical study of the artist. In 2008 Sekano was given his first show in South Africa at the University of Pretoria. The following year the curator Ed Cross put on Charles Sekano: House of Women, in London. In 2013 Red Hill Gallery in Nairobi staged a retrospective of Sekano’s work and the artist’s work featured in a highly successful East African art auction in Nairobi.
Sekano has consistently followed his own distinct path: his has been mainly a solitary journey of personal discovery. The figures in many of his works may be inspired by memories of Nairobi nightlife but they are constructed in the current gritty realities of everyday life.
Whilst a love of geometric shapes had informed all his work from the outset, it was not until after his exhibition in Pretoria that Sekano started to develop a new way of working and seeing, based predominantly on the use of coloured squares and rectangles. For Sekano the four sides of the square and rectangle have come to symbolize the walls of man-made structures such as houses and even graves. Thus these shapes that combine to form his figures represent the shacks that many families still dwell in, as well as the memory of a lost childhood home and the now fading dream of the artist and others of owning their own homes in modern South Africa.
The geometric shapes also symbolize the building process of life itself and in these beautiful and powerful works we see the coming together of memory, of self-fulfillment and expression, and of life’s geometry of dreams, hopes and realities.