Renowned South African artist, Helen Sebidi (76), in the painting studio of the Department of Fine and Applied Arts, Faculty of the Arts, where students work alongside her.
Sebidi’s journey to becoming a professional artist is quite different from the students who now work alongside her.
She was born in Marapyane, near Hammanskraal, where her grandmother, who was a traditional floor painter and a recurring figure in Sebidi’s recollection of her own life, sparked her love for the arts. Her upbringing features strongly in her work.
“My grandma, who reached the ripe age of 115, taught me everything I know,” she says. “For her, everything was about learning.”
Due to financial difficulties, Sebidi had no means of obtaining a formal art education. Aged only 16, her mother asked her to move to Johannesburg where she thought she (her mother) wanted to seek help for her failing eyesight. But, she had to look for work as a domestic. Fortunately, a German employer discovered her talent and encouraged her to paint.
Sebidi says that she then realized that she needed formal lessons, which started at the White Studio in Sophiatown.
Her extraordinary skill did not go unnoticed and she was soon asked to exhibit. “At the time I didn’t even know what an exhibition was,” she says wryly. The first of such exhibitions was the Johannesburg Artists under the Sun exhibitions in the early ‘80s hosted at Zoo Lake where Sebidi sold her clay artworks to make ends meet.
During this time several well-known South African artists in the art fraternity, amongst others David Koloane, an influential artist and writer of the apartheid years, and Lucky Sibiya, who is internationally renowned for his abstract paintings and sculptural carvings, crossed her path. They helped shape her career, which has since been characterised by several national and international accolades.
Sebidi was awarded a Fulbright Scholarship to travel to the USA and to exhibit at the Worldwide Economic Contemporary Artists’ Fund Exhibition. She was awarded the Standard Bank Young Artist Award (1989) and Star Women of the Year. She also received the South African Order of Ikhamanga in Silver at the National Orders Awards in 2004 from the South African Government for her excellent contribution to the field of visual and traditional arts and craft.
Sebidi does not beat about the bush when asked what advice she has for her young protégés. “An idle hand and a big mouth can never build anything. Compare yourself to those who work hard,” she stresses. She also finds young artists’ fixation on money “saddening.” “Money demolished the world.”
Her advice to lecturers is that they should view their role not as mere teachers, but also as parents of learners and discipline them, if needed.
Sebidi’s Residency forms part of a TUT and University of Pretoria (UP) Mellon funded project.
During her stay at TUT, students will also sculpt a portrait bust of her. Works by Sebidi and the TUT and UP students will be exhibited at the Student Gallery: UP-Javett Art Centre in October 2019.