Helen Sebidi: Domestic Worker to Presidential Orders

Born 1953

“I never want to be pushed to finish things quick, quick, quick. I want to work without interruption. Alone. Quietly,”

Helen Sebidi

From domestic worker to renowned international artist, Mmapula Helen Sebidi is a prime example of a black female artist who overcame the odds of apartheid. Coming from a humble family and with little means to pursue further education, Sebidi dropped out of high school at the age of 16 and sought employment as a domestic to support herself financially while practicing her art privately.

Her mother encouraged her to move to the city, and there began moving between rural and urban areas, experiencing the strain that distance places on family relationships, the instability of the city, the temptations of urban Johannesburg. “The first day I arrived my mother sent a girl to the station to fetch me. She was smoking. Can you imagine? I was not smoking at that time.”

Sebidi spent her nights between the houses of friends, and returned to her mother’s small, cramped quarters for meals. She found the townships of Johannesburg smelly and congested. Her grandmother encouraged her to continue her artwork despite the lack of space in her small living quarters. “She said to me, I must not be keeping boyfriends in the room, just to continue with my [art]work”.

Her employer encouraged her to pursue her art, which saw Sebidi enrolling in formal lessons at the age of 27. She attended the White Studio in Sophiatown, run by John Keonakeefe Mohl, a black painter who Sebidi says was not only her teacher but also a father figure in the city. There she learned new mediums, painting and composition techniques that brought her work to the forefront of the art world.

Her work was inspired by traditional rural life as well as township realities during the apartheid era. The struggles of black women were at the forefront of her art, being most concerned with the abuse they suffered on multiple societal levels: their own homes where they were required to fulfill the role of home-keeper and breadwinner, as well as the exploitation suffered in the homes of their employees where many sought work as domestics. Selebi’s outspokenness drew attention from unwanted authorities and she was often harassed by the state police, in addition to being arrested on a number of occasions.

Tears of Africa 1988

Tears of Africa

One of her most famous works Tears of Africa, (1988) is a congested charcoal collage. Set in a crowded Garden of Eden, it portrays people seduced by life in the cities, resulting in broken family structures and shattered African identities. The destruction of cultural values indicated by the vigorous fragmentation of colour, face splitting, crayon scrawls and broad-brush strokes.

Where Is My Home? The Mischief of the Township

Where Is My Home?
The Mischief of the Township

Where Is My Home? The Mischief of the Township is another example of the cubist-expressionist nature of Sebidi’s work. Equally congested, the pastel and paper collage portrays the psychological trauma experienced after moving to urban centers from a rural environment, drawing attention to the political climate that created the social ills prevalent in the townships. The violence, disillusionment and over-crowdedness that had African people living like animals, removed from their cultural roots, history, traditions and thus identity.

By the 1980s, Sebidi was selling her work at the Artists Under the Sun exhibition held in Joubert Park, Johannesburg. This was the first time she was able to support herself purely from the sale of her work. During this period she also started teaching at the Katlehong Art Center in Germiston. In addition, she worked for the Johannesburg Art Foundation and taught at the Alexander Art Center.

The internationally celebrated fine artist was born near Hammanskraal, in the Northern Transvaal in 1943, she was largely influenced by her grandmother, who was a traditional wall and floor painter. She was very close to her grandmother and used her work as a basis for her own art, which provided financial stability and spiritual fulfillment.

Sebidi was awarded the Presidents Order ‘for making an excellent contribution in the field of visual and traditional arts and crafts’. She also won the Standard Bank Young Artist Award in 1989. Now 70 years old, Sebidi lives in Parktown, Johannesburg, her art studio is on the premises of her home.