Mmapula Mmakgoba Helen Sebidi was born in Marapyane, near Hammanskraal,on 5th March in 1943. She developed a life-long love for the designs of traditional arts and craft as a young girl, thanks to her grandmother, who was a traditional wall and floor painter.
Sebidi was from a humble family, and with limited means of obtaining formal education, circumstances forced Sebedi to seek work as a domestic worker in Johannesburg. In private, and in her own time, she pursued her emerging sense of creativity. One day her work was discovered by her employer, who was astonished by her talent, and encouraged her to paint.
Sebidi soon realized that she needed to receive formal lessons in the art of painting. She therefore enrolled at the remarkable White Studio in Sophiatown from 1970 to 1973, which was established by the pioneering black painter John Keonakeefe Mohl.
Sebidi therefore acquired a firm grounding in the fundamentals of painting technique and composition, which resulted in her art taking a qualitative leap. She broadened the scope of her medium and her work began to be noticed within the art world, therefore she was soon asked to exhibit.
The Johannesburg Artists under the Sun exhibitions in the early 1980s represented a commercial breakthrough for her, enabling her to make a decent living from her art for the first time. Sebidi had experienced the difficulty of pursuing art as a career, so was concerned with the development of art appreciation and education.
In 1985, she took up a teaching position at the Katlehong Art Centre near Germiston. Between 1986 and 1988 she worked for the Johannesburg Art Foundation while teaching at the Alexandra Art Centre. She also participated in numerous art projects with community organisations such as the Funda Art Centre, and the Thupelo Art Workshop.
Sebidi draws her inspiration from the happenings and experiences of daily township life. The suffering and disruption inflicted by apartheid, especially on women, are common themes which are often executed with complementary techniques. In the celebrated collage pieces Tear of Africa and Where is My Home? The artist renders her subject matter in broad jagged brush or crayon strokes, playing with contrasting light and dark tones to emphasise the idea of rupture.
Sebidi was awarded a Fulbright Scholarship to travel to the USA and exhibit at the Worldwide Economic Contemporary Artists’ Fund Exhibition. In 1989, she was awarded the Standard Bank Young Artist Award.
Helen Sebidi, as she is known professionally, has become a recognized artist in South Africa and internationally. Her work is exhibited regularly in major galleries across the country and abroad and routinely included in standard reference books on South African art.
The life-history of the struggle of this consummate artist stands as a metaphor for our collective struggle to define ourselves as a nation. Mmapula Mmakgoba Helen Sebidi’s work was driven by her innate need to express herself through art, her adversity and challenges, and therefore reminds us of where we come from, and prompts us towards our future. Her body of work continues to nourish our collective soul as a nation.
The South African Government bestowed Mmapula Mmakgoba Helen Sebidi with the Order of Ikhamanga in Silver at the National Orders awards on 19 October 2004 for her excellent contribution to the field of visual and traditional arts and craft.