The Art of Remembrance: The Work of Mmakgabo Helen Sebidi

Mmakgoba Helen Sebidi

Heritage, history and wisdom are intrinsic to celebrated South African artist Mmakgabo Helen Sebidi’s work. Her latest exhibition Batlhaping Ba Re! is now on at the Norval Foundation in Cape Town.

‘The world would be a better place if we all shared ideas and knowledge,’ says Sebidi, adding that her grandmother influenced her early love of art, instilling in her values of hard work and collaboration. ‘When I was growing up, my grandmother’s courtyard was a dance floor,’ she says fondly, reflecting on the role of play and how it translates onto a canvas.

Sebidi was born in 1943 in Hammanskraal, in the north of the former Transvaal. She later moved to Johannesburg, where – like millions of other black women at the time – she found a job as a domestic worker in a white suburban home. She found it to be incredibly suffocating and whenever she complained to her family and friends, they’d try to placate her, saying: ‘That’s how we live. You’ll get used it.’ She didn’t.

Rebelling against life as a domestic worker in apartheid South Africa was as much an act of subversion as of survival. Sebidi was working so hard that she eventually fell ill, with swollen feet that made it difficult for her to walk or carry out her duties. In 1975, she decided to return to Hammanskraal to care for her ailing grandmother. When she got there, she began to regain her strength and morale, creating a space for herself to focus on art.

Mmakgoba Helen Sebidi

It was during this period, while painting and sewing, that she learnt the essence of traditions, design and creative principles through the teachings of her grandmother. These principles were later further impressed on her by the strong mentorship of John Koenakeefe Mohl, whom she met in the early ’70s at the White Studio in Sophiatown. ‘Mr Mohl became like a father to me, since my own father was of the generation swallowed up by the migrant labour system,’ she says. These learnings, combined with her ability to chronicle history with visual elegance, brought her work to the forefront of the art world and marked the start of a career that’s spanned over four decades.

Sebidi’s practice reveals her inner world and is rooted in the idea of searching and digging deeper. She views herself as a medium through which the seeds of art can be nurtured and grown. ‘When I’m painting, I’m only a receiver and messenger, putting out what comes through me,’ she says. She’s particularly passionate about teaching and passing down knowledge, which she views as a way of instilling the values of respect, humility and love in the next generation. ‘Culture can’t be owned,’ she says. ‘We own nothing, therefore we give back everything.’,

Sebidi will be exhibiting a selection of drawings and paintings curated by by Portia Malatjie at the Norval Foundation in Cape Town from 1 September 2018 – 24 January 2019.

Text: Nkgopoleng Moloi; Photographs: Ben Law-Viljoen, John Hodgkiss, Courtesy of David Krut Publishing

*This piece has been edited for the web. Read the full feature in the September 2018 Heritage Issue of Elle Decoration.