I want to cry tears of an equal amount of joy and sadness. Kwanele, the senior arts writer at the M&G, and I are working on this week’s edition of Friday and he has just submitted a story about Mmakgoba Mmapula Helen Sebidi, an artist whom until he pitched a story about, I had never heard of. She is a 73 year old contemporary of John Koenakeefe Mohl, David Koloane etc and the way he has written about her range and ouvre has given me joy because I’m learning about someone I never knew existed. I feel alive with new knowledge. And pain because why is her story less known than others like Jane Alexanders, Maggie Loubser, Irma Stern etc. Why was her work not part of the curriculum in my high school and Rhodes University Art History classes?
This takes me to a conversation Malose and I were having this morning about our heroes and how stuck they become in time. How every year we like to remember them, memorize their stories, historicize them, reproduce their images from their deaths or imprisonment and put them on t-shirts and bags but not take their teachings into the contemporary with practical application such as making their teachings part of the curriculums be they at schools, independent groups or in our homes. I am guilty of this. Steve Biko is remembered every September yet his work is not taught at a primary school and high school level so that every year, he has to be a new discovery to someone instead of all of us taking his teachings and adding new teachings unto them for the next generation which will also do the same so that his work is no longer new, because it isn’t. Malose made the analogy of hip hip and how soul music, funk and older genres continue to live by being sampled by hip hop makers who add their own flavour to them so that that music is automatically archived in the process and each generation is linked to another. We should be creating the same linkages with our history. Why am I at the age of 31 only discovering Helen Sebidi? It was only two years that I also learned of Gladys Mgudlandlu. Imagine how many more Helens and Gladys’ there are throughout our continent. Helen became an artist while she was a domestic worker. This is an important story to tell and keep telling but one that should be built upon so that while she is a hero to some degree, she is not stuck in that moment – that there should be millions more after so that hers is not a unique story.
I happened to record bits of the conversation we were having (as I do when things get like this) but it’s the tail end. I labeled it pillow talk because we were in bed having coffee when I started speaking about what we should do with the knowledges we know.
The cover image is a painting called The Child’s Mother Holds the Sharp End of the Knife by Mmakgabo Mmapula Helen Sebidi and the story is coming out in this week’s Mail & Guardian Friday