Sun Sep 24 04:57:49 CAT 2017

Artist Sebidi guided by ancestors

By Mamodima Monnakgotla | 2013-04-26 11:11:25.0

"I AM not an artist. The artist is God and I'm only doing a job where I am experimenting, communicating, experiencing and learning every day," says Mmakgabo Helen Sebidi.

A world-renowned visual artist, 70-year-old Sebidi imparted some life lessons during our interview at her Parktown, Johannesburg, home.

She shared stories of pain, defeat, success and the power of her ancestors.

The lessons began with Sebidi's assurance to make us feel at home.

"No woman is a visitor. In our culture when you visit any home, you should take what is offered to you then stand up and help out," says Sebidi.

She also believes all culture is African.

"My grandmother said we all come from one man and one woman. Originally from Africa, we spread out into the world and the development of other cultures began."

With South African indigenous cultures, Sebidi says most people adopted European culture through churches, which were actually meant to influence rather than pull followers down and made them believe they were nothing.

"Those who didn't adopt European ways felt ashamed and African culture was neglected."

Hailing from the rural Skilpadfontein in Mpumalanga, Sebidi came to live in Johannesburg after her domestic worker mother got her to move here.

Due to her poor eyesight, Sebidi had to drop out of school at Grade 7 and start earning money to help her grandmother.

She says all her life she has maintained the true culture of her people but is afraid that eventually it will disappear.

"I was born with, and was married to this culture. I'm keeping up with the culture and now that I'm getting old it's going to disappear. My life was tough but my grandmother's route was the right one," says Sebidi.

While she was working as a domestic and acquiring her skills in fine art, Sebidi recalls how she was harassed by the apartheid police and arrested several times for a variety of inane reasons.

"I either walked too freely or I swore at the government. The one time I was in jail for three weeks after being accused (by white people in a neighbourhood she worked in) for stealing food from a fridge inside a locked house," she recalls.

The incident came about when Sebidi, trying to avoid pickpockets, rushed to hide in a house whose owners were not present and the neighbours called the police. Finding nothing stolen but motivated by racism, the police trumped up this charge, she says.

She says she found healing in her art and her former employers who gave her love, kindness and the opportunity to explore this craft.

"I had to keep pushing and my grandmother motivated me. I get dreams and visions from my ancestors who guide me with each painting I create. Their spirit has always been with me," she says.

Sebidi often travels to her hometown for research and inspiration.

Her paintings changed from rural landscapes to township, material and violent lifestyles during her artistic journey.

Other skills she attained from her grandmother include sowing, bead-making, sculpturing pots and calabash art.

After training under John Koenakeefe Mohl at the White Studio in Sophiatown, she showcased and sold artwork for the first time at an exhibition in Joubert Park .

 She later worked with the Katlehong Art Centre and the Johannesburg Art Foundation, Alexandra Art Centre, Funda Centre in Soweto and Thupelo Art Workshop with artists such as David Koloane.

The veteran artist's accolades include the presidential Order of the Baobab in Gold for her excellent contribution to the field of visual and traditional arts and crafts in 2008; the 1989 Standard Bank Young Artist Award and  the Arts and Culture Trust Lifetime Achievement Award in 2011 to mention just a few.

Sebidi explains that her "madness," which is the wild energy she describes coming from her traumatic past, revealed itself in the 1980s when she was exploring collages.

 "My work spoke spiritually that even I couldn't understand."

In 1989 she survived a terrible car accident which killed her friend and associate artist Bill Ainslie. She suffered serious injuries.

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