/ 15 April 2024

Rediscovered: Mmakgabo Helen Sebidi’s art returns home after 33 years

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Helen Sebidi still paints at her home studio. Her art depicts 'the uncomfortable process of decolonising’ the UJ Art Gallery says about the exhibit. Photos: Lesego Chepape

How 28 artworks by the renowned South African artist Mmakgabo Helen Sebidi found their way back home 33 years later is a mystery with a happy ending. 

In 1991, Sebidi was invited to Nyköping, a small Swedish town on the Baltic Sea, south of Stockholm, to participate in a programme called “Cultural Work with Developing Countries”. 

She brought with her 28 works for her month-long residency where she shared knowledge on South Africa, as well as the country’s politics and artistry at the Nyköping Folk High School, a residential college for adult education. 

Gabriel Baard, who is the curator of Sebidi’s recently opened exhibition,  Ntlo E Etsamayang (The Walking House), tells the Mail & Guardian about the history of this mystery in the celebrated artist’s Parktown home in Johannesburg, where Sebidi has her studio.  

While appreciating some of her art and sculptures, Baard says: “The exhibition never took place … and they had told Sebidi she would receive her work back; however, what came was a box of beadwork and a letter that her artwork had been stolen.”  

In May 2023, the Nyköping school’s caretaker, Jesper Osterberg, decided to clean out a long-neglected cupboard at the school. “He found a roll of artwork behind some Christmas decorations with Sebidi’s name on it. He contacted the local gallery. Through research is was discovered who Sebidi was. That was the beginning of the voyage of the artworks back home,” says Baard.

These long-lost treasures are on show at the UJ Art Gallery for South Africans to see for the first time.

At Sebidi’s house, the artist is dressed in a green and brown dress, with a brown beret combining with her outfit in a flattering way. Her house is filled with grandchildren and nieces, plus me, Baard and her public relations specialist. 

Later, when we sit down for tea and a long chat, Sebidi tells me of the pain she felt when she was told her work was stolen. 

“I was devastated, I was heartbroken. I cried for the work and mourned the work for a very long time. I thought I would never it again,” says the 81-year-old painter and sculptor.

She has lived an eventful life. Sebidi was born in 1943 in near Hammanskraal area of the then Northern Transvaal. As her mother was working as a domestic worker in the city for much of her childhood, Sebidi grew up with her grandmother, who taught her the values that would guide and sustain her life.

“I used to go to school until one day, my grandmother who was raising me, told me that there was a lot of work to do on the land. Even when one of my teachers came to fetch me, my grandmother still maintained that she was the greatest teacher,” Sebidi says. 

The celebrated artist says that her gift comes from her elders who were potters and painters. 

“We were taught that cooking and doing the laundry was not a real job. So over and above tending to the land we were told to do work that had a value and art was that for me.

“They used to say we stop working when we leave this world and have left all the important messages for those who are living,” she says. 

Sebidi left school after completing grade eight and spent much of her young adult life as a domestic worker in Johannesburg. Following a period of imprisonment on false charges of theft of food, she started using her time to make dresses and knit. She sent money home to support her grandmother and extended family.

Sebidi started taking art lessons in the early 1970s under the pioneering black painter John Koenakeefe Mohl. She also trained at the Katlehong Arts Centre to improve her clay technique. Here she worked on pottery and sculpture and gave classes to children. She later worked for the Johannesburg Art Foundation while teaching at the Alexandra Art Centre. 

In 1985, Sebidi had her first solo exhibition at Fuba, the influential art centre in Johannesburg. After this exhibition — arguably the first solo exhibition for a black female artist in the country — her fortunes began to change. 

Four years later, she was awarded a Fulbright scholarship to travel to the US. There she had a placement at Millay Arts in Austerlitz.

Despite her growing influence as an artist, her occupation as described by her identity document was “domestic servant”, according to her Everard Read biography.

In 1989, Sebidi was the first black woman to win the Standard Bank Young Artist award. Her prolific work and versatile creations over her five-decades-long career got her further recognition. In 2004, then president Thabo Mbeki awarded Sebidi the Order of Ikhamanga in Silver — the highest honour given to those considered a national treasure. 

She has lived through many phases of South Africa’s history, documenting the political, social and spiritual progress that make up this country and its people. Her canvasses were how she protested what black people at the time struggled to communicate. 

At 81, the sprightly Sebidi says she is still moving and working as she always has. “I used to dance in the middle of the courtyard at 1am, moving and exercising. It’s wonderful! Being alone and working at night when people are sleeping. The energy and feelings are different at that time, not listening to anybody who speaks by mouth but by work. That’s who you get to be inspired by.” 

 She says that this is attributed to her greatest teacher, her grandmother. One day the matriarch walked in, stick in hand, waiting to whip her grandchild because she thought Sebidi was hiding and neglecting the work on the land, only to find her painting. 

“She stood looking at the work for a very long time, and she looked at me and said, ‘This is my work’,” Sebidi recalls. 

Sebidi says that her ancestors continue to live through her to create the art’s message and communication. She says as much as losing the work for so many years took a toll on her, she believes there is a much deeper meaning to it. 

“We can look at this situation from a bad light; however, maybe the works were meant to be hidden. Maybe I was not going to talk about The Walking House if I would have exhibited that time, maybe I was not going to talk about my grandmother’s messages.

“It was not just my grandmother’s messages, it was all the grandparents’ messages who were saying that children must work hard and meet the world,” she says.  

Sebidi says she believes the works were protected by her ancestors, the ones who gave her the gift to communicate through art. She may never know or understand the motive behind the works being hidden in that way; however, “it was all meant to happen the way it did”.

The works on exhibition in Ntlo E Etsamayang are described in the gallery’s notes as “an acute and unbounded search into the relationship between humanism and spiritualism of the contemporary black African lived experience”.

It goes on to say: “Her art depicts the disordered and often uncomfortable process of decolonising, through which she has cultivated a visual ­language that compels us to feel things and perhaps even devote our own lives to the cause.”

Sebidi says: “I am overwhelmed and emotional but I never gave up the hope the works would come back to me and tell their story to the children of the soil. The work was never mine, it belonged to my grandmother. The work is back but it is not mine, it belongs to the children.” 

She  hopes the return of the works will inspire young artists to protect their art and make sure that no one takes advantage of things that are given to them by their ancestors. 

Ntlo E Etsamayang is on display until 17 May at the UJ Art Gallery at the University of Johannesburg’s Kingsway Campus in Auckland Park.