Norval Foundation Cape Town
01.09.2018 – 24.01.2019
I met with Mmakgabo Mapula Helen Sebidi at the Norval Foundation, amongst typical, ‘one day to go’, exhibition installation chaos. Even so, the mood conveyed by ‘Bathlaping Ba Re!’, curated by Portia Malatjie, was meditative. Interviewing Mme Helen was unique for a number of reasons. The overarching characteristic of our conversation is that she didn’t answer my questions, but gave me more than I could have known to ask for. Each answer was part of an expansive story, spread over decades, which resisted transcription but which gifted me with insight about her artistic motivations. Her story weaved and tangled but resolved into a narrative whole. The following is only a snapshot of our conversation.
Khanya Mashabela: You have a very distinct style. When people look at your paintings, they instantly know that it’s Helen Sebidi. How did you find your style, did it take a lot of experimentation? When did you start painting in this way?
Mmkgabo Sebidi: You’ve come to the right question, because I always wondered myself, “Why must I paint like this, while others are painting like that?” I studied with Mr [John] Mohl, and I did ask him: “Why am I like this, and you’re like that?” and he said, “No. That’s your style.” As I went on, he approached me to say, “You are gifted and you have a calling from those people you are drawing and painting, the people from behind. It’s not your grandmother who is calling you. There is a calling from your ancestors. While you are looking after your grandmother, you need to do your research. It is those people who wore skins, who are inviting you to come. Go and do the research. That’s where you are wanted, I am finished with you.” That’s how I went, very happily, after he had guided me on how to ask them questions, deep down. And he told me, “I don’t want to see ‘Johannesburg’ work or any ‘Soweto’ work, you must bring yourself to those people.”
Later my grandmother saw my work as I was hiding it and she said to me, “this is my work, I am going to look after it and I’m going to help you guard it from other people, because if people see it, it will be ‘blown out’. When people knock, you don’t receive them, I receive them, and you keep on working. You greet them, you offer food and then you move away, you don’t speak to them.” When I would stay and admire a person, she would give me a very stern eye that said “Hey, hey! Move away.” That’s how she looked after my work. I understood later, after her death. I stayed with her for ten years, doing the same thing. I used to bring my work to her before I would take it to the exhibitions with Mr Mohl.
KM: Was your grandmother trying to keep you away from people because she wanted you to give you the freedom to concentrate on your work?
MS: Oh, she planned a lot! She planned how to keep me away from people. And when I would try to get back to people she would say “Hey! Move away from those people.” She would guide me and tell me, “Those people have been blinded by white people. They are not alive. You see them walking, you see them sitting, they’re dead!” At the time, I didn’t realise what she was talking about when she said those people are ‘dead’. It’s only after she died, with her stories, and I won the American prize [the Fulbright Scholarship], that my work started changing. I started to compare the township to the rural areas, looking at the city life and the blood that was running between Tokoza and Katlehong.
When I was at the Katlehong Art Centre, guns were shooting while I was protecting children. One child was shot across the street. He ran and fell on the other side of the street, where I was. He fell and the blood ran onto my dress. It splashed everywhere. That’s when I realised he had been shot. I went and washed my clothes while the blood was still wet, then came back, and that was the end of me in Katlehong. That’s when I started going to Bill Ainsley and registered to be his student. He introduced me to the people who were going to open the arts centre in Alexandra. He said to me, “Because you want to be a teacher, you’re the right one to go and work with the children in Alexandra”. It was very hard because I found the same fight as what I had seen in Katlehong and Tokoza. The same thing was happening in Alexandra. For me, it was very shocking. After that, I started working with the [Johannesburg] Art Foundation more strongly.
When I was working on the bigger collages, the questions started to come: Why is it like this? Why do the people suffer in the township? I came from a place where I was quiet and happy. I compared rural, township, and city life. And words came to me: Do you see white people, as being able to help these people? They also lost their home. From Europe, imagine how much culture has been dropped in the sea. And when you look at the township people, they dropped their culture because of these people who came here already lost, who influenced them to be separate from the rural areas. That’s why you see all these fights. Because there are no roots in anything.
KM: Rootless people…
MS: They are all rootless. Like my grandmother said, they are dead. They are dead! So I needed to keep strong in my corner, to find a way.
KM: Does that motivate your work? You referred to it as a calling so it must be spiritual for you, but are you also trying to connect with your roots and show people that they need to connect with their own?
MS: I think Mr Mohl was right to say to me that I am called by my ancestors. They protected me very much and they guided me very much, because I settled down and asked questions for ten years, looking after the old people, cutting their hair and their nails, asking them questions. They seemed a little bit unhappy as a whole. They used to meet at my grandmother’s place. I would make them parties so that I could get stories. Sometimes I would go to the bush to collect the tea that we used to drink, we never bought tea. That tea made them very happy. They’d call each other over, “Come, let’s go and have tea.” And I’d receive the stories.
My grandmother, was very strong with her guideline to keep me quiet, so I was facing their reality without any interruption. The elders said “We taught our children, so that we can go further. We taught them all the skills. But still, they never followed us. They took all the energy that we gave them and all of the skills, and gave them to white people. So we are empty”. My grandmother said I was not going to leave her. If she died, I needed to represent the activities that she had left behind. “You are the one that was chosen. You are my gift. I’m leaving all my skills with you”. After she died I became so lonely and unprotected. That’s how I happened to go to Katlehong. I found in Katlehong ‘the lost’ that they were talking about.
One of the main curatorial dialogues within the exhibition takes places between the works Tears for Africa I (1987-88) and II (2016). Each work expresses the pain inflicted by colonisers, in Africa and in America. The story Mme Sebidi tells about her first experiences with American bureaucracy and the way she tells the story, interwoven with her experiences of her struggle for personal freedom in Johannesburg under Apartheid-era pass laws, expresses much about the relationship between the two works and their subject matter.
When I won the [Fulbright] Scholarship and went to New York, the embassy called me and asked me what I would like to see in America. For me, it was a question that gave me an opportunity to see the agriculture, because I’m an agricultural woman myself.
KM: They are supposed to have great farms in America…
MS: Yes! I wanted them to help me get to work, I wanted to do agriculture. They asked me what else, and I said something that I had gotten from my grandparents and their story-telling. The elders told me that their people were stolen, people with knowledge who could do things, and that’s why we were so poor, because our people are gone. They would say that they didn’t want me to be like the people that had been stolen. When I went to the embassy I told them that I had heard that those people in America are stolen people. They said to me that they weren’t stolen people, that they are African American. I told them that I very much wanted to see them because the stories of stolen people had impacted me so strongly. And then the third request was that I wanted to see the original people in America. They asked me what I meant by the original people. I said “the people who orïginated there, I want to see them”. Those three questions became a major thing with the American embassy. They had never funded a person who asked questions like that.
They said they would get me a person to show me the agriculture, someone whose family had originated in England. But I said to them that I didn’t want to see those people who had taken African people as slaves, like our grandparents had told us about. When I applied for a passport, my ID was registered as a domestic worker, because I couldn’t walk in the street I was always caught: “Why do you walk so freely, like a white person?” But I didn’t know what they meant. If that was politics, I didn’t know. I came from the rural areas.
I told the embassy that I very much wanted those people, [the stolen people and the original people,] to help me see the reality. I was caught often in Johannesburg. That’s why I registered my pass as a domestic worker. Because I could get to where I wanted more freely, and of course the embassy understood this. My pass was registered as a domestic. I used to pay a white woman every month to go and pay at the pass office, so that they could renew it. But she was so scared that woman! She always used to feel that she would get caught. I told her she would never be caught. I said, “You’ll be okay, and as long as I pay you, I’ll be ok.” When I got the scholarship, the Americans helped me to make a passport out of the registered pass.
KM: Each of the works shown in this exhibition are filled with symbolism and seem to be telling a story. Did these stories come from your grandmother and the people around her?
MS: Yes. The people then used to be so cooperative. When they worked, they worked as a community. It was not only your mother or your grandmother. If you were whipped, you were whipped by all of them. If anybody went wrong, the community would steer them right. We never had one grandmother or one mother. We knew that one mother builds mothers. One grandmother builds grandmothers. And one grandfather is also building all the grandfathers. That was the respect and love.
KM: Did you find that feeling of community later on when you were working and learning at the community art centres in the city? A sense of mutual responsibility?
MS: I did that at the Katlehong Art Centre. I had all these children coming from the township, and I worked with them like my children and like my brothers and sisters. A curator said to me, “After you came here, Katlehong Art Centre became so much more awake”. I explained to him the strength of the elders’ teaching. I had an idea for a project where we would create an exchange between young people from the townships and the rural areas, in order to allow them to communicate with each other. People in the township are ashamed of the small rooms they live in. There is only room to sleep, but nothing is given to them in order for them to be free. The hope for the project was for them to understand that they do have land to use, and to allow them to explore themselves through the clay workshops. They’d get free clay in the rural areas. They wouldn’t have to buy it. The knowledge would be supplied to them through the elders. They would be richer when they came back and they would be stimulated. We were taught when we grew up that once you start to own, you corrupt. We were taught that ownership doesn’t work in the world. We were given a message to follow and that message was to take the skills we were given and build them higher and higher. The curator fundraised for the project and put a lot of money together, but he didn’t spend it on anything for the project, and spent the money by buying his own foundry. I’ve always hoped that an art centre could be opened in the rural areas, where we could find young people from the townships with talent and let them work there and be inspired.
KM: Talking about your own work, what does the process look like for you? What is the process when you are building paintings like the ones in this exhibition? Everything is so layered and textured.
MS: It involves the skills I learnt from my elders. Building houses for them was part of learning these skills. We would build walls, working as a community. The layers and layers on the paintings are part of the skills we learnt when we were building the walls and the floors, learning different techniques. This appears in my work. My art teacher said these were new skills, after I had been studying at Bill Ainsley’s studio; that my style had changed. But these weren’t different skills, I was just using the skills I had learnt before in a different way. It was the same style, but I improved upon it as I kept painting. It went back to my grandmother telling me that she was giving me these skills, and I needed to communicate them to the world. “When I do this, I’m building a house on you. The house is not like the ones we do here with our hands, it’s the house that will go into the world with you. It will travel and it will be in you.” I only understood later.
KM: With this retrospective exhibition in mind, looking at where you are now… You said your grandmother was building a house inside of you. Do you feel as though that house is built, or are you still building it?
MS: I think that house is still being built and I don’t think it’s the kind of house that I can stop building. I think it’s everyday’s work until one dies. It’s a house that my grandmother had begun building before we were born because she’d say “I don’t own this house, I’m only keeping it for those who have left. I’m collecting and giving what we have to be shared, so that when I get back to them, I can report back. I must report what I have done with you.” The elders didn’t own anything, they would say that they were given things so that they could share with us; so that when they would leave, we would have something[…] What I understood is that if I help people, I don’t help them as a ‘teacher’, I’m helping them to be open and to see their own road, the road they were born to. But they have their own guidance and it’s not me.That’s also what Mr Mohl said, “I’m not teaching you, I’m helping you to see your gift.”