Helen Sibidi, Ntlo E Etsamayang (The Walking House)
Helen Sibidi, Ntlo E Etsamayang (The Walking House)
Image: Supplied

There are several symbiotic sites of transition that are occurring within SA visual arts matriarch Mmakgabo Helen Sebidi’s latest exhibition, Ntlo E Etsamayang (The Walking House). The works themselves carry a slither of national history, having been made and subsequently going missing during SA’s political interregnum. Held at the University of Johannesburg Gallery, the exhibition makes a significant contribution to the cause for decolonising higher learning institutions in the country in favour of integrating more indigenous knowledge systems into tertiary learning and knowledge creation. The exhibition presents an opportunity to shift the way one sees, and how one experiences what has been in plain sight all along.

A recognisable and significant change had been taking place in Sebidi’s artistic practice in the 1980s. When Sebidi joined the Johannesburg Art Foundation (JAF) in 1986, the organisation founded by visual artist and art educator Bill Ainslie had become a model for arts centres that allowed wide access and participation by South Africans, including those in exile. Ainslie and visual artist David Koloane were mentoring Sebidi at JAF during this period.

But according to the exhibition’s co-curator Gabriel Baard, the two could only make suggestions and present perspectives for Sebidi to consider, adopt or discard at her own discretion. “She started exploring in a more abstracted and more metaphysical way than she had before,” Baard said. The Belle Époque in Sebidi’s career took place during the unravelling of apartheid.

Sebidi started showing her work at the Artists under the Sun exhibitions from 1977. She had her first solo exhibition at the Federated Union of Black Artists (FUBA) in 1986, when she was no longer required to carry the pass book (or dompas) which had listed her occupation as “domestic servant”. She won a Fulbright scholarship in 1988. She became the first black woman to win the coveted Standard Bank Young Artist Award in 1989, the year Nelson Mandela met the then-sitting president, PW Botha, and a hunger strike by prisoners detained during various states of emergency precipitated the nationwide Defiance Campaign.

In 1989 a motor accident mangled the car in which she, Ainslie and Koloane had been driving back to Johannesburg from Zimbabwe, taking Ainslie’s life and rendering hers and Koloane’s bodies wreckages. Her dream of a woman with red roses and black leaves on her dress caused Sebidi to cut her hospitalisation short. To work, that is what the woman in the dream had instructed her to do.

The pastel drawings in Ntlo E Etsamayang (The Walking House) stem from this period of extraordinary physical pain, emotional anguish, and communion with other realms. The exhibition comprises 16 pastel drawings, five linocuts, four etchings, three screen prints, as well as a collection of beaded pieces and calabash works from the artist’s collection. The pastel drawings are the most numerically, physically, visually and thematically imposing of the works included.

With her pastels, Sebidi depicts scenes that are tightly occupied by human, animal and other figures that these figures take up most of the space on her canvases. The web of bodies and their composite parts holding, caressing, guiding each other are intimately and fluidly coexisting. They occupy and compress every available space on each canvas to make a literal depiction of coexistence as a tapestry of interwoven and shared parts that make us who we are. A useful way to retrace each limb to its owner(s) is by working outwards from the central, eye-catching moments in each work.

Mmakgabo Helen Sebidi walks with singer Ann Masina at the launch of the Ntlo E Etsamayang (Walking House) exhibition
Mmakgabo Helen Sebidi walks with singer Ann Masina at the launch of the Ntlo E Etsamayang (Walking House) exhibition
Image: UJ Arts and Culture

As Sebidi recovered from her injuries, creating these artworks when she could not sleep, a catastrophic bloodletting was taking place across the country. 

Her long-time friend and a co-curator of Ntlo E Etsamayang Professor Kim Berman, writes “This body of work, which has been missing for 33 years, holds the pain and memory of the apartheid struggle and trauma. When Sebidi completed this extensive work, SA was transitioning politically. Nelson Mandela was out after 28 years of imprisonment. There was upheaval and violence in the country and significant international pressure to end apartheid rule. In many ways, this work represents a repository of pain, trauma, and hope that she felt had to be conveyed and witnessed by the world. She uses spirituality as a source of strength, resilience, and resistance against oppressive and colonial structures.”

Sebidi received an invitation to a month-long residency at the Nyköping Folk High School in Sweden. Her grandmother, an important figure in Sebidi’s young and adult life had had a vision of Sebidi as a house that travelled the world, meeting other similar houses. Working with the Cultural Work with Developing Countries (CWDC) programme the residency promised an artistic exchange with Swedish artists and Sebidi’s own exhibition.

She packed the works she had completed while recovering from the motor accident, some of her other prized artworks as well as some beaded pieces she had collected and set off for Sweden in 1991. The promised exhibition never materialised. Instead, the CWDC programme’s organiser, Peter Dewoon, asked to hold onto the works Sebidi had brought with a further promise of holding the exhibition in her absence.

Nyköping Folk High School in Sweden where Mmakgabo Helen Sebidi completed a month-long residency in 1991
Nyköping Folk High School in Sweden where Mmakgabo Helen Sebidi completed a month-long residency in 1991
Image: Gabriel Baard

Sibidi returned to SA, inquiring regularly about the progress of the exhibition. After a year of back-and-forth correspondence, she requested that her works be returned to her. A short time later, she received only a small box containing some beaded items.

Dewoon sent word that Sebidi’s artworks were lost. With the help of Andries Oliphant, Sebidi lodged a police report at the Swedish Embassy in SA. For years, she tirelessly tried to have her works returned to her. 

Peter Dewoon died in 2020 aged 74. Twenty-eight of the 33 works were mysteriously found by the janitor at Nyköping Folk High School in May 2023. The works were in their original packaging and remarkably well preserved.

A tangible celebratory mood filled the UJ Gallery on the day of the opening of Ntlo E Etsamayang (The Walking House). Sebidi had eschewed an honorary doctorate from the institution, prioritising this exhibition over the title, and showcasing indigenous knowledge in practice. 

With timeless wisdom, Sebidi said this about the return of her artworks at last: “I understand that I don’t own those children. They were a gift to me. I feel that they were hidden for this communication to be extended. If they had been exhibited, then they might have been sold. They were hiding so that I would continue struggling and working hard. I can now see the road. It has strengthened me to struggle further. Now my children are home, I can see the road.”

Ntlo E Etsamayang is at the UJ Art Gallery on the University of Johannesburg’s Kingsway Campus in Auckland Park until May 17.

Walk-about dates are as follows:

April 13 2024, 11am-12pm

April 20, 11am-12pm

May 4, 12pm-1pm

May 11, 11am-12pm

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