It’s a typical South African scene: a black woman bent over a mop, scrubbing the floor in a white woman’s house. She leans into the mop from her hips, pushing back and forwards. The tiles glisten, covered in a soapy film.
Once she finishes her day’s work, she will go home and take care of her family. Sleep will be possible at midnight, but only for a few hours – three is the norm. Then it’s time to work, this time on her terms.
The early hours of the morning were when Helen Sebidi learnt to be an artist. Rising at three in the morning, she painted scenes of African life that carry the emotional weight of years spent living under iniquity – pieces that strike a unique emotional register. She looked at Africa with a painter’s eye, and replicated its electric colours in her art.
She left school after what was then Standard 6 – what would now be Grade 8. Her artistic education came from her grandmother, who taught her the craftsmanship of creating with the materials to hand. Using clay from mud walls and colour from natural minerals, Sebidi learnt to shape pottery vessels and paint murals.
“In the rural areas where I grew up there was that freedom where I learned everything,” Sebidi says. “We learned the differences between the town and rural life, which is far richer.”
She started as a domestic worker when she moved to Johannesburg at the age of 16, in 1959. She wanted to learn, to train as a nurse, but the economic realities of the time, and her lack of schooling, meant that certain doors were closed to her.
She worked for a number of different people before one of her employers, a German woman living in South Africa, introduced Sebidi to the practice of easel painting. Her practice of working on her art in the early hours of the morning grew in this time, as her creative talent blossomed.
Sebidi’s is a story of grit as much as it is one of artistic sensitivity. When she tried to visit Johannesburg art establishments, she was turned away: not only was she black, she was a woman. In apartheid South Africa, white men held the keys to the galleries.
She found Dorkay House, a venue where creative people in Johannesburg congregated. There she began to attend weekly classes taught by Ezrom Legae, and eventually met the painter Koenakeefe Mohl.
“He was like my father. I didn’t have a father, I didn’t grow up under one, but after knowing him I feel like I had one,” Sebidi says of Mohl.
Her natural ability was complemented by formal lessons from the artists at Dorkay in composition and technique, and her work went from strength to strength. In spite of this, she hid her creations from her grandmother – whose influence had set her down the artist’s path in the first place.
It seems extraordinary now, looking at the confidence and strength of Sebidi’s paintings, but she was once embarrassed by her work. “I was 32 years old when she first saw my work, and I hid it from her. I hid it from the community. I didn’t want anybody to see because I was very old already,” Sebidi says of showing her paintings to her grandmother and family.
In 1975 she had to return to Marapyane to care for grandmother, whose death in 1981 affected Sebidi profoundly. “She would always say to me, ‘you are my gift.’ I was very unhappy after her death – I felt naked,” says the artist.
Sebidi became the first black woman to put on a solo art exhibition in South Africa when she began to show her work at Artist Under the Sun – an initiative aimed at allowing amateur Johannesburg artists to show their creations.
Koenakeefe Mohl died shortly before her exhibition, but before he went laid the foundations for it to happen. The success of the exhibition meant that Sebidi was able to live off the proceeds from sales of her artwork for the first time.
The Katlehong Art Centre, with which Sebidi became involved in 1985, provided an outlet for Sebidi’s skill in working with clay. She experimented with pottery, learning the craft of sculpture, and passed on her skills to younger artists. Katlehong was an outlet that broke free from the patronising attitude often taken by the establishment towards black artists: that the work produced is more decorative than thoughtful, more pastoral than challenging.
The idea of the professional black artist became a reality at Katlehong, and Sebidi was a natural fit. She involved herself with a number of projects, joining the Johannesburg Art Foundation and adding collage to her repertoire of artistic skills.
All of this culminated in Sebidi receiving a Fulbright Scholarship in 1988, which allowed her to travel to the United States and continue her artistic growth. On her return to South Africa she was involved in a terrible car accident that claimed the life of Bill Ainslie, a fellow artist and friend.
“He just died immediately. I happened to be taken to hospital by helicopter and I was very lucky,” she says of the tragedy. Out of the shattered glass and broken bones came Tears of Africa, Sebidi’s most famous painting.
“I’m not going to sell it because I must be healed by it,” is Sebidi’s attitude towards that work, more than 20 years later. The painting is definitively cathartic, and difficult to process: the charcoal figures grimace and twist, contorted into shapes of suffering and mourning.
Sebidi’s demons leave her body, and enter the painting. The sorrows of a continent are distilled in a single piece of artistic expression, captured by an artist at her peak.
She’s crying for Africa, but also for herself and the friend she lost. And she won’t sell the painting. There’s a message there: express your sorrows, get them out, but retain the lessons that they teach you and keep them close. Just don’t let them live inside you; that’s no way to heal. South Africa is going through the same process, and with people like Helen Sebidi to look up to, we’re well on our way.