Mmakgabo Mapula Helen Sebidi

Mmakgabo Mmapula Helen Sebidi was born in 1943 in the Hammanskraal area of what was then the Northern Transvaal. As her mother was working as a domestic worker in the city for much of her childhood, she grew up with her grandmother. Mmakgabo Sebidi spent much of her young adult life (she left school after Grade 8) as a domestic worker in Johannesburg. When a German employer – Heidi – started painting, 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 John Koenakeefe Mohl before returning to Marapyane in 1975 to look after her ailing grandmother. During the early ‘80s she also trained at the Katlehong Arts Centre to improve her clay technique. In 1985, Sebidi had her first solo exhibition at FUBA. Through the exhibition she met Bill Ainslie, who encouraged her towards more abstracted work. Mmakgabo Sebidi’s accomplishments were recognised in 1989 when she was approached by the American Embassy with a view to applying for an international award. She won the award and was given a Fulbright scholarship to travel to the USA, where she had a placement at the Millay Colony for the Arts in Austerlitz. While in North America, she also spoke at Yale and Mississippi Universities and attended a 45-day workshop in Washington. That same year Sebidi also won the Standard Bank Young Artist Award in South Africa. From the 1990s to the present, Sebidi had travelled and exhibited throughout the world, including the UK, Holland, South America and the US. Her work is in various public collections around the world including the National Museum of Women in the Arts, Washington and New York, USA, the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art, New York, USA and the World Bank. In 2004, President Thabo Mbeki awarded her the Order of Ikhamanga (the Strelitzia or Bird of Paradise Flower) – which is the highest honour given to those considered a “national treasure”. She was awarded the Lifetime Achievement Award for Visual Art, South Africa, in 2011, and in 2015 the Mbokoto Women’s Award, in South Africa. In September 2018, Sebidi was honoured with one of the first solo presentations at the Norval Foundation in Cape Town – a retrospective entitled Batlhaping Ba Re. Sebidi’s art also demonstrates an attempt to go back to a pre-Christian, pre-colonial Africa – to a range of symbols, a value system and a way of making meaning of the world that can still be found in pockets in the rural areas. Working predominantly in pastel, acrylic and oil paint, she has developed a distinct style that uses vibrant juxtaposed colour, rough surfaces, distorted perspectives, abstracted human and animal figures, and dream images – often in a pointillist, stippled style of pastel or paint application. More recently she has returned to sculpting in clay, and this exhibition features the first of her sculptures ever to be cast in bronze.

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