Mmakgabo Mapula Helen Sebidi was born in 1943 in Marapyane (Skilpadfontein), in the Hammanskraal area of 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 Metato (meaning ‘fence’ or ‘bridge’), who taught her the values that would guide and sustain her life. This includes the channelling of spirit back into the world through hard work, the commitment of the self to the community, but most of all through acts of creativity – whether this be cooking, constructing mud walls, creating murals, making pots and decorating calabashes, weaving, beading, drawing or painting.
For Mmakgabo Sebidi, the artist starts from a root of pain and conflict and works her way towards the redemption of both herself and those around her through the act of making. The creator becomes invisible during this process and is the channel through which the spirit world flows. The artwork can be seen as the trace of this redemptive journey. 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.
Mmakgabo Sebidi spent much of her young adult life (she left school after Grade 8) as a domestic worker in Johannesburg. Before moving to Johannesburg she had never seen white people. Following a period of false imprisonment for stealing food, she started to occupy her spare time making dresses, sewing and knitting. She sent the money home to help support her grandmother and her extended family. When a German employer 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. After the death of her grandmother in 1981, she remained in the rural areas, earning extra money from painting rural stories onto calabashes and making pottery. From 1985 she worked at the Katlehong Arts Centre. Here she also improved her clay technique, worked on pottery and sculpture and gave classes to children. In 1986, Sebidi had her first solo exhibition at FUBA. It was arranged by her teacher and mentor Mohl, who died shortly before the exhibition opened. At the time she was living in a township hostel with few possessions other than a blanket, soap, a face cloth and her paints. After this exhibition – arguably the first solo exhibition for a black female artist in the country – her fortunes began to change. Through the exhibition she met Bill Ainslie, who encouraged her towards more abstracted work. She later joined the Art Foundation, training and exhibiting with white and black artists together for the first time. Until this period, Sebidi had been exhibiting at Zoo Lake and selling her work mainly to tourists. From her solo exhibition on, she would become increasingly known in the art world – and would join the Everard Read as one of their most significant and influential artists. Mmakgabo Sebidi’s accomplishments were more fully recognised in 1988 when she was approached by the American Embassy with a view to applying for an international award. To her surprise, she won the award and was given a Fulbright scholarship to travel to the US, where she had a placement at the Millay Colony for the Arts in Austerlitz. Her occupation as described by her identity documents was simply ‘domestic servant’. She ran a month of workshops and also went on a tour of America, where she met up with the ‘stolen people’