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Sunday, March 16, 2014


Gerard Sekoto book is as informative as it is delightful. (Review by Caroline Smart)

Shorty & Billy Boy is about two naughty dog-chaps. However, it’s the person who created this delightful book that attracts its major focus.

Gerard Sekoto is an iconic name in the visual arts world – both internationally and in his former homeland of South Africa. One of his paintings was bought by the Johannesburg Art Gallery in 1940, becoming the first picture painted by a black artist to enter a South African museum collection.

Sekoto went into voluntary exile in 1947, leaving South Africa for England and eventually moving to France. Initially, he was unable to make a living from his artwork so he fell back on his considerable musical skills. He often played his own compositions in night clubs on the Left Bank in Paris and a CD of some of these songs, titled The Blue Heads: Introducing the Songs of Sekoto was released in 2003 by the Gerard Sekoto Foundation.

After Sekoto’s death in France in 1993, the Foundation was established to persuade the French government to waive taxes owed by the estate. Eventually, all his papers and art were returned to South Africa and they are housed in the Iziko SA National Gallery in the Gardens in Cape Town with a complementary collection in the Wits Art Museum in Johannesburg.

Shorty & Billy Boy gives a compact biography of the famed artist including examples of his paintings, some of which are now featured in numerous collections around the world. His work has been exhibited in South Africa as well as in the United States, Italy and France. He received a number of highly prestigious awards, including (posthumously) the Order of the Ikamanga, the highest award South Africa offers for achievement in the Arts.

Sekoto first produced Shorty & Billy Boy in 1973, possibly as a gift for the children of friends. The tale of these two naughty dog-chaps (as Sekoto termed them) resonates on a number of levels. At first glance, it’s a fun story about two thieves who have no compunction in stealing things, especially eggs. Eventually the community starts demanding their punishment so they run away to what they expect to be greener pastures.

This new location isn’t the land of milk and honey they expect but a Mother Hen is kind to them and suggests somewhere for them to live. This doesn’t stop the dastardly pair from going back to her home and stealing her eggs. Her suspicious husband calls in the law and the two are caught – Shorty gets away and Billy Boy goes to jail, later to be released a changed being.

On another level, this story looks at how good can overcome evil, provided criminals resolve to change their ways.

The illustrations include watercolours reproduced as he created them in his original document. The newcomer to Sekoto’s work can see his rough sketches next to the finished article. The sketches have been highlighted to draw attention to Sekoto’s dexterity and fluidity with pen and paint.

The images are an utter delight, my favourites being Pretty Miss Piggy, Mr Cow on his bicycle, Mr Cock in fully-blown frustrated squawk and, of course, the striding figures of the dapper dog-chaps.

All royalties from the sale of the book will go to the Gerard Sekoto Foundation.

Shorty & Billy Boy is published by Jacana - ISBN:9781431406067. Recommended Retail Price R125.40. – Caroline Smart