Artist Gerard Sekoto (1913-1993) spent most of his life in Paris, but he never assimilated into European society. He retained his African heritage, as can be seen in the works he painted over the years. Even when his life unravelled he refused to return home, to apartheid South Africa. The last few years of his life saw the worth of his works increasing; it was art historian Barbara Lindop who became integral in his success.

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In his will, Gerard Sekoto specified that his estate be used for art education for young South African children. Formal art education was not offered to black South Africans during the apartheid era, and he had hoped to see this rectified in the future.

Gerard Sekoto was one of South Africa's most important artists, even though he spent most of his life in self-imposed exile in Paris, France, his enormous contribution to the country included forging the way for other black artists, and his depictions of the lives of people in Sophiatown and District Six.

Both suburbs were demolished under the Group Areas Act.

Sekoto grew up in Botshabelo, a German Lutheran missionary station close to Middelburg, Mpumalanga. His father was a preacher, and his uncle was commissioned to assist with translating the Lutheran Bible into Northern Sotho.

He started drawing from an early age but, as a teenager, his work took on a very different quality when he discovered coloured pencils. When he moved to Johannesburg, he befriended artists Alexis Preller and Judith Gluckman, who taught him to work in oil. It was during this time that his signature works came into being.

A characteristic of Sekoto's work was to use bold colours to produce realistic depictions of his subjects. His work was displayed in galleries across the world, including the Tate in London, and the National Gallery in South Africa.

By all accounts, Sekoto led a tortured life in Paris. To survive, he took on a job as a pianist in a nightclub, he was ill a few times, and fought his addiction to alcohol. But no matter how ill or unhappy he was, Sekoto was clear: he would not return to an oppressively governed South Africa.

Even when there were numerous people encouraging him to return to South Africa, in the last few years of his life he was steadfast. He was living in an old-age home in Paris, and it was South African Barbara Lindop who would play one of the most important roles in his life.

In the years he lived in South Africa, he depicted township life in his works and moved around constantly. His work would end up representing the lives of communities destroyed by the apartheid government, and his work would be featured by a number of galleries in South Africa. The manner in which black people were treated in apartheid South Africa, and knowing that his success would be limited, he left the country of his birth in an act of self-exile in 1947.

His intention was to further his art studies in Paris, but this turned out to be an expensive decision, and soon he was looking for other work. Landing a job at trendy nightclub was his salvation.

He sang, composed songs and a number of his works were published by Les Editions Musicales. His songs were said to reflect his emotional state, how he felt being all alone in exile, and embodying the courage of an artist surviving among foreigners.

In 1960, Sekoto attended the Congress of Negro Artists in Senegal where he visited Casamance, which brought back happy memories of his early childhood. Here he recorded rituals, particularly those of a young boy that had been killed by a snake. Afterwards he returned to Paris and carried on painting, still in oil but more so in gouache, which was less expensive. He frequently drew on memories of South Africa, and also those of Senegal, which were to be repeated until his death.

One of his most important works was his tribute to Steve Biko, Homage to Steve Biko, painted after Biko's death in 1977, but the work would be stolen. The man Sekoto accused of the theft would be the same individual the ANC would later send to Sekoto as a negotiator to purchase his work.

The 1980s found Sekoto grappling with the difficulties arising from his long-time lover Marthe Baillon's death. She had died in 1976 without leaving a will, and this would lead to Sekoto eking out a meagre living.

Today he is seen as one of the most important South African artists, but in the 1980s he was destitute. In his biography, A Black Man Called Sekoto, N. Chabani Manganyi writes that Sekoto was reduced to selling metro tickets at Gare du Nord; he was hawking them by the unit, which was illegal.

Even then, he refused to return to an apartheid South Africa.

In December 1984 Sekoto, 71 at the time, was knocked down by a car in Corbeil, and hospitalised for almost two years at Hospital Dupuytren in Draveil. It was at this stage that his life took a major turn.

Barbara Lindop, described as a Johannesburg housewife educated in French, anthropology and the history of art, made contact with Sekoto in 1986, at the same time that a revision of his work in London, Paris and Johannesburg, spearheaded by his nephew, the ANC's Mongane Wally Serote, began in earnest.

The ANC was determined to purchase his works as a national cultural heritage, but Sekoto believed that the intermediary had stolen a number of his big paintings, including Homage to Steve Biko.

Lindop would become such an integral part of his life that she was the executor of his estate when he died on March 20, 1993.

Lindop continually prodded Sekoto to devote time to his painting as his earlier works were fetching record prices. He continued to paint, but old age was catching up with him and he stubbornly refused to return home. He died aged 80, a year before the first democratic elections in South Africa.

His paintings can now be seen at the Wits Art Galleries and the South African National Gallery in Cape Town. In his lifetime, Sekoto exhibited in Paris, Stockholm, Venice, Washington, Senegal and South Africa.

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