South African art greats in Strauss & Co's May auction

15 May 2024
Strauss & Co's two-part live auction on Tue, May 28 brings together a phenomenal catalogue of works by Dumile Feni, Mmakgabo Helen SebidiMaggie Laubser, Esther MahlanguAlfred Thoba, and J.H. Pierneef, among a host of South African art greats. For the magpies, The Diamond Edition jewellery sale runs concurrently, kicking off on Fri, May 17.

Even if you don't plan on bidding on anything, the preview exhibition at Strauss & Co's Houghton showroom is a rare chance to see these museum-quality works in person. A topic we've been thinking about a lot lately comes to fruition in this catalogue, where South African resistance artists who began their careers under apartheid are now gaining the recognition they deserve alongside their contemporaries. 
Known for his depictions of daily life, Gerard Sekoto explored themes of identity and community in his work. Photo: Strauss & Co.

"More than a decade ago, The New York Times wrote that South African avant-garde painting of the 20th century had not loomed large in the international public imagination, which was perhaps true of affairs at the turn of this century but definitely does not apply today," says Dr Alastair Meredith, Strauss & Co's Head of Department of Fine Art. "South African modernists have, in the last few years, received growing recognition in international exhibitions and publications." 

As we've written before, this moment is ripe for the rediscovery of previously forgotten or overlooked artists. Strauss & Co's curator Wilhelm van Rensburg explains this by saying, "There is a whole generation of people who are deeply interested in art, but who missed the opportunity to experience the South African art of the late-20th century, and who would look at that art without all the political baggage that sometimes accompanies it."
Esther Mahlangu's painting of an Ndebele villiage joins the chorus in Strauss & Co's May auction. Photo: Strauss & Co. 

The evening sale offers a representative survey of South African art, from its early beginnings with painters like Frans Oerder and Pieter Wenning, through the emergence of the black Modernist canon with figures like George Pemba and Gerard Sekoto, up to the vibrant present day.

Painting features significantly across both day and evening catalogues, including Vladimir Tretchikoff’s Chrysanthemums in a Vase. Sculpture is an especially strong focus in the day sale, featuring work by Deborah Bell, Andries Botha, and Diane Victor. Two charcoal drawings by William Kentridge – whose career we reflected on during Strauss & Co's 2023 Auction Week – anchor the contemporary offering.

Keep reading for some notable names you'll encounter if you visit the pre-auction showcase at Strauss & Co – we highly recommend it. 

Alexis Preller's sun-drenched beach scene, Fisherman Mending Nets, is one of the beautiful pieces available for bidding, created during the artist's visit to the Seychelles in 1949. Currently the subject of a career retrospective at Norval Foundation in Cape Town, Preller has two works in the evening session that solidify him as an artist who resisted the constraints and conventions of his home country of South Africa, and one who continues to defy neat definition.
A luminous work painted by Alexis Preller in the Seychelles. Photo: Strauss & Co.

Getting her moment in the sun with a broad retrospective titled Then I knew I was good at painting at Cape Town's Iziko South African National Gallery, Esther Mahlangu also has work in Strauss & Co's May auction. A beloved cultural ambassador of the Ndebele nation as much as an important South African artist, Mahlangu has been painting since she was 10 years old and has dedicated her life to her work. Her pieces Ndebele Villiage and Untitled (Green Central Motif) are up for auction in Strauss & Co's May edition.

A few years ago Strauss & Co mounted a non-selling exhibition of George Pemba alongside work by Robert Hodgins entitled Social Stances. Characteristic of his humane attitude towards society, Pemba's paintings depict traditional African culture and his own local contemporary way of life. Family Figures and Shack-Dwellers are two of the artist's works on auction, while his 1989 portrait Author and Artist depicts author Alan Paton.
George Pemba's portrait of Alan Paton, author of Cry, the Beloved Country. Photo: Strauss & Co.

A pioneer of black South African Modernism, Gerard Sekoto lived in the vibrant, multiracial community of Sophiatown and, despite the hard realities of life under apartheid, captured township life with sensitivity and great dignity in his works. The Bridge, Mother and ChildTwo Striding Figures, and the particularly striking Girl in Blue are among Sekoto's works on auction.

Irma Stern's paradisiacal 1930 portrait Cape Girl with Fruit leads the 85-lot catalogue for the premier evening sale. This important, large-scale work was made during a period of frequent travel across South Africa and records the beginnings of Stern's celebrated and sensual style. Four additional works by Stern come up for auction, including one of her expressive still lifes. 
An example of painter Irma Stern at her finest. Photo: Strauss & Co.

Along with Irma Stern, painter and printmaker Maria Magdalena (Maggie) Laubser is one of the godmothers of the South African Expressionist movement. At the outset of her career, she received resistance from conservative circles in the country, but her talent soon won out, earning her local and international recognition. Laubser's expressive paintings chronicled the landscapes and people of South Africa in the 1900s, challenging the conventions of her time. 

A legend amongst us, Mmakgabo Helen Sebidi has been in the news lately with her awe-inspiring exhibition of lost-and-found artworks at UJ Art Gallery, Ntlo E Etsamayang (The Walking House). Read more about the incredible story, and the artist's life, here. A fierce guardian of ancestral wisdom and a trailblazing artist, Sebidi sees beneath the surface and has the tenacity to explore it. Her art is magically transformative, singing up life from our nation’s dry bones. An earlier work by Sebidi, Inside the Hut, Near Hammaskraal will be on auction at Strauss & Co.

Noria Mabasa's work took on a different trajectory when she swapped clay for wood as her main medium. The shift was inspired by a series of dreams in which her ancestors spoke to her and, as the first Venda woman to work in wood, she entered an artistic realm that had previously been the preserve of male sculptors. Her large, complex, and narrative-driven pieces span news media, mythology, history, and the bible in their influences. Look out for Mabasa's sculpture, Moses.
Prominent South African wood sculptor Noria Mabasa's Moses. Photo: Strauss & Co.

Sydney Kumalo’s art journey began while studying at Polly Street Art Centre in Johannesburg. Here, he was taught by prominent artist Cecil Skotnes, who contributed greatly to the development of black creatives. In 1964, Kumalo became a professional artist, and he was known for creating metal figures and sculptures. He went on to become one of the pioneers of Afrocentric art, which gave voice to the anger experienced by many South Africans during apartheid. Two Bulls, one of the artist's most important and imposing sculptures, is up for auction at Strauss & Co.

Strauss & Co's online day sale of Modern and Contemporary Art ends on Tue, May 28 at 14:00, while the live-virtual evening auction starts at 19:00 on Tue, May 28.

Meanwhile, The Diamond Edition online day sale runs from Fri, May 17 – Mon, May 27 and the live-virtual evening sale takes place on Mon, May 27. Jewellery viewings are by appointment only; contact


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