Ingenuity has no respect for lifestyle or education barriers because when art is expressed by a creative mind; there are no limits to the treasures and goodies art has to offer.
As a young girl, Mmakgabo Helen Sebidi drew strength from her mother and grandmother who exposed her to the world of traditional aesthetics. Her story is one which shows how an artist can make money from his or her artistic passion.
Born in 1943 at Northern Transvaal, South Africa; Sebidi grew up in a rural community where she learnt from her grandmother how to decorate calabashes, cultivate plants, construct and beautify walls and floors with mud and cow dung respectively.
Her own mother also taught her the art of dressmaking and embroidery. Helen Sebidi’s cultural exposure and the native skills she learnt from her feminine powerhouses, her mother and grandmother, form focal representations of her work – creative paintings.
David Krut published a book on her in 1929 where she speaks of her grandmother’s influence on her painting:
“I remember lying down next to my grandmother while she was making the floor out of cow dung. I wanted to see why her floors were different to everybody else’s, so I lay down to watch her and I saw her fingers”.
Little did the young Sebidi know all the skills she learnt would be creatively expressed in highly-priced paintings that art lovers around the globe couldn’t help but buy.
After completing Standard 6 (primary education) at the age of 16, she left her for Johannesburg to search for a work and she got a domestic service job which gave her a copious exposure to metropolitan lifestyle. There, she also learnt the European culinary styles.
Sebidi expressed an interest in painting herself and was given her first set of oil paints. She then sought lessons and finally joined the art classes of South African painter, John Koenakeefe Mohl.
The Johannesburg Artists under the Sun exhibitions in the early 1980s represented a commercial breakthrough for her, enabling her to make decent money from her art for the first time. Sebidi had before now experienced the difficulty of pursuing art as a career, so was concerned with the development of art appreciation and education.
She trained at the Katlehong Arts Centre to perfect her clay technique. Here she worked on pottery and sculpture and taught children. After the death of her grandmother in 1981, she remained in the rural areas, earning money from her art by painting rural stories onto calabashes and making pottery.
Sebidi is known as one of the most creative African artists – using her long delicate hands to command the soft bristles of her brush, she draws images with precision and accuracy depicting the African essence and lifestyle.
Sebidi’s art has traces of a pre-Christian and a pre-colonial African era that elicits a strong and devout value system.
Mmakgabo Helen Sebidi’s collection of experiences make her peculiar as she fuses life in the city with life in the rural community, combines modern and traditional practices, reality and myth and paints both male and female figures.
In 1985, Sebidi had her first solo exhibition at FUBA. It was arranged by her teacher and mentor Mohl, who died shortly before the exhibition opened. At the time she was living in a township hostel with few possessions other than a blanket, soap, a face cloth and her paints.
In 2004, Mmakgabo Helen Sebidi received the Award of the Order of Ikhamanga from the office of the South African President, Thabo Mbeki for her exemplary and creative work an award given to those who are considered a national treasure.
After this exhibition – arguably the first solo exhibition for a black female artist in the country – her fortunes began to change. Through the exhibition she met Bill Ainslie, who encouraged her towards more abstracted work. She also joined the Art Foundation, training and exhibiting with white and black artists together for the first time.
Until this period, Sebidi has been exhibiting at Zoo Lake and selling her work mainly to tourists. From her solo exhibition on, she became increasingly known in the art world and went on to join the Everard Read as one of their most significant and influential artists.
Mmakgabo Helen Sebidi is indeed an inspiration and pioneer to the younger generation of South African artists. Working predominantly in pastel, acrylic and oil paint, she has developed a distinct style that uses vibrant juxtaposed colour, rough surfaces, and distorted perspectives, abstracted human and animal figures.
On her journey as an artist, she said:
“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.”
With a deep knowledge of culture and a mix of urban exposure, Mmakgabo Helen Sebidi makes paintings from an archetypal perspective, being able to conceive classical ideas and paint them to perfection.
Today, Mmakgabo Sebidi lives in Parktown, Johannesburg, where she also has her studio; spending most of her time inspiring and encouraging the younger generation of artists.
From a casual worker to a prominent artist; art has a way of breaking conventions and taking creatives up the social and economic ladder.
Today, Mmakgabo Helen Sebidi’s works are displayed in local & international art exhibitions and are sold for ten thousands of dollars. Even still, it is still the passion for the art that drives her.
In her words :
“I think I’ve given myself to the world. I don’t have to be conscious about who I am working for. I have to be happy with what I am doing.”
Her story is one that revives hope in our hearts showing that one can make money from art or any other passion. She is proof that unique art is nothing to be ashamed of and will only make one stand out even more.