Mapula Helen Sebidi (1943 - )
The Order of Ikhamanga in
Profile of Mapula Helen Sebidi
Mmapula Mmakgoba Helen Sebidi was born in Marapyane, near Hammanskraal, in 1943. She developed a life-long love for the designs of traditional arts and crafts when as a young girl she accompanied her grandmother who was a traditional wall and floor painter.
Coming from a humble family with limited means of obtaining formal education, circumstances forced Sebedi to seek work as a domestic worker in Johannesburg. In private and in her own time she pursued her nascent sense of creativity until her work was discovered by her employer, who, astonished by her talent, encouraged her to paint.
Realising that she needed to receive formal lessons in the art of painting, Sebidi enrolled to study from 1970 to 1973 at the remarkable White Studio established by the pioneering black painter John Keonakeefe Mohl in Sophiatown.
With a firm grounding in the fundamentals of painting technique and composition, Sebidi’s art made a qualitative leap. She broadened the scope of her medium and her work began to be noticed within the art world. Soon, she was asked to exhibit. The Johannesburg Artists under the Sun exhibitions in the early 1980s represented a commercial breakthrough for her, enabling her to make a decent living from her art for the first time.
Having experienced the difficulty of pursuing art as a career, Sebidi was concerned with the development of art appreciation and art education. In 1985 she took up a teaching position at the Katlehong Art Centre near Germiston. Between 1986 and 1988 she worked for the Johannesburg Art Foundation while teaching at the Alexandra Art Centre. She also participated in numerous art projects with community organisations such as the Funda Art Centre, and the Thupelo Art Workshop.
Sebidi draws her inspiration for her work on the happenings and experiences of daily township life. The suffering and disruption inflicted by apartheid, especially on women, are common themes, often executed with complementary techniques. In the celebrated collage pieces Tear of Africa and Where is My Home? the artist renders her subject matter in broad jagged brush or crayon strokes playing with contrasting light and dark tones to emphasise the idea of rupture.
Sebidi was awarded a Fulbright Scholarship to travel to the USA and exhibit at the Worldwide Economic Contemporary Artists’ Fund Exhibition. In 1989 she was awarded the Standard Bank Young Artist Award. Helen Sebidi, as she is known professionally, has become a recognized artist in South Africa and internationally. Her work is exhibited regularly in major galleries across the country and abroad. Her work is routinely included in standard reference books on South African art.
The life history of the struggle of this consummate artist, to follow her innate need to express herself through art, her adversity and challenges, and finally her critical success, stand as a metaphor for our collective struggle to define ourselves as a nation. Mmapula Mmakgoba Helen Sebidi’s work reminds us of where we come from, and prompts us towards our future. Her body of work continues to nourish our collective soul as a nation.