By Heidi Trautmann
It was her laughter. It came from deep down below and rolled over her body in waves opening her face and reaching her eyes. You were helpless in front of this explosion. She had become part of our family from the first day on when she started working for us, caring for us. It was in 1968. When we left home to go to work in the mornings, I liked to turn back and see her standing there in the doorway, in her pink or green house dress with one of our babies in her arms; it gave me a warm and safe feeling. We were all young, had our good times and our fights, had plans for the future and worked hard. In those years Helen saw me happy and she saw me desperate and thus we grew together.
She had a family to care for, her grandmother, her three sons and one sister who still went to school. Once a month she sent a food parcel home by bus. How she managed I don’t know, she never told me, she never complained. Only once I saw her cry, when she learnt that the parcel had been stolen from the bus. We packed a new one and sent it off again.
When alone at home in the evening I told her:”When you have finished, come over for a ciggy!” And while I painted, she sat next to me, both still smoking heavily, and she watched what I was doing. We talked about our families, traditions, about facts of life; she never complained, at least not then. The nasty things in her life I only learnt much later.
There was something we had in common: we were both raised by our grandmothers who taught us nearly the same wise things, and that quite emphatically. So with time I learnt about her family, her people, how they had come to settle, learnt about the traditions to paint the walls of their houses. I could tell her that in Bavaria we have a similar tradition: Lüftlmalerei, usually paintings on the walls indicating the profession of the owner. We also talked about social things, natural medicine, faith and education.
Our youngest son was baptized at the Catholic Missionary Station in Marapyane, Hammanskraal, near Pretoria, where Helen grew up and where her grandmother lived with her children. I expressed my sincere wish to meet grandmother; only later she confessed to me that my request had irritated her as her grandmother’s house was probably not of my standard.
It was a hot day and the heat swam above the honey coloured bush grass and in the thorn trees along the path we had to follow to their house. We came to a clay wall, painted all over in the colours of the countryside in geometrical patterns, protecting the round grass-thatched house inside. The floor in the inner court was immaculately clean, obviously brushed when still wet into interesting patterns.
There I stood face to face with grandmother and it was as if I had known her all my life, and she knew me. She was very old and thin and stood deeply bent over her walking stick. Her handshake was firm, her hands big with beautiful long fingers. Through a low entrance we were invited inside into the only room of the round house and I found it surprisingly cool and fresh there. We had good talks, spoke about the construction of houses, the laws of nature and how to keep the inside of the house cool, and also about the stupid habit to replace the straw roof by tin roofs.
The way I record those days from my memory could make believe that we lived in peace ad harmony. Only much later Helen told me about her experiences in other houses where she worked as a housemaid, a black girl in white peoples’ houses during apartheid. All the bitterness came up then. I was too young and unexperienced, let’s say naïve, to understand all the implications. Many things I have never believed possible. A non- or – even worse – half educated society believing to be God’s chosen people was allowed through their government’s politics to treat their black brethren as second class, as slaves, shouldering them with their own incompetence and failures. Many years Helen was scrubbing and wax-polishing floors, maltreated and insulted. Even during the years she was with us, she was harassed by our neighbours who could not accept our way of treating her as a normal human being. In their eyes we were suspicious and it could have easily been that one of them would denunciate us. For this reason Helen had kept her silence. ‘How could we fraternize with second class people, how could we celebrate Xmas together with our black servant, how could we sit at the table with our gardener and drink tea together?’ But apartheid is a story by itself, but if you believe that apartheid has only happened in South Africa then you are mistaken, it still happens, right among us, right in 2009. The comprehension humanity and human leaves a very bad taste in my mouth.
So we sat for many evenings and talked about art. Simple talks, often about nature, the ability to learn about oneself and the things around us, what the nature of things is, nearly abstract and philosophical. Helen was a deeply religious person and much attached to nature. Legends and stories told by her people, interpretations she has done for herself, mythology and astrology. A very dense world of legends; that was her world and very obvious to me.
In her childhood and before, legends and events were handed on only by word of mouth among the members of the family or the tribe and thus imaginary landscapes were established.
One day when she was as so often asking why I did this or that on my canvas, I gave her some tubes of oil paint, some brushes and some painting carton and told her: Try for yourself!
For many evenings I didn’t see the end of her apron. Finally she came to present her first work and I was deeply moved. She had done a blue tree on red earth in front of a green sky, and all painted in pure unmixed colours. That moment I was aware that there was unspoilt rich soil in front of me, in a woman who had the same creative hunger as myself and that she would fight for her still unclear future. That was a moment of clear-sightedness. For Helen, it was her moment of cross-roads. I saw the proud shine on her front and I realized that she would develop away from me. I recommended her to take lessons from a local teacher. Her first and most important teacher became John Koenakeefe Mohl
After that we had to leave South Africa, a country which I loved so much and whose beauty, special aura and smell have stayed with me ever since. I continued to follow up Helen’s development and when we had the chance to meet in Germany again, we filled all the gaps of our memory on long walks through our Bavarian nature. We brought things to the surface which had hurt and pursued Helen through all her life, starting with her childhood where she had longed for an opportunity to channel her creative mind, she said. The most important person in her life was always her grandmother and what she knew she had learnt from her; the knowledge that we all are nothing but tiny molecules in the vast sea of humanity. From her she learnt the sacred secrets hidden in our earth and in the hearts of our people.
After we had left Johannesburg she had to return to her village to care for her grandmother who was bedridden. With her she took the newly born and fast growing artist she had become and there in her village she had the opportunity to rediscover her country and her people with new eyes. She painted what she saw with her new understanding and her soul grew with it but also the pain which came automatically with it. It is said that an artist has to suffer before he can discover for himself the endless space of the soul. Helen has taken on her shoulders heavy loads of pain to continue the road she had chosen for herself.
She had learnt to work with clay in a separate course, and as she needed to earn money, she took her pots and figures, the calabashes she had decorated, her paintings and drawings on the bus to Johannesburg to exhibit her work along with her art colleagues in the Zoo Lake Park where she soon found her first customers and collectors.
She was given the opportunity to study art at the University, received scholarships from abroad, and thus she learnt how art was done elsewhere. She experimented with new techniques, did incredible etchings and soon started travelling to display her work in exhibitions in her own country, other African countries and abroad, such as America, Sweden, England, Holland, Australia and Germany. Helen was invited and highly honoured.
But Helen always remained true to her own style and philosophy. Although she admired the great artists, she had never tried to copy them but took only on what seemed to go well with her work.
In her work she tried to speak of her experiences in life, the old traditions and legends disappearing from her peoples’ minds, the bitterness of suffering of her people, and finally the sad situation of the young generation lost in hopelessness.
However, she also teaches us not to give up and despair by representing the endless rotating rebirth of humanity. The colours she uses speak of love and the painful knowledge of her country’s suffering and the knowledge of colours go back right to her childhood when her grandmother taught her to find them in nature. Helen paints right from the centre of her being where there burns the flame of her vision, a vision of a better world which she believes can only be realized when every single individual has accepted the godly element in him/herself, has learnt to respect it, namely the power to create. Being creative means for her to finely tune all her senses and to use them in a proper way, but she said, the most important thing is to respect our ancestors and history and she teaches us never to stop learning to improve our abilities to strengthen our character. A friend of mine who knew her around that time – for me 20 years had passed in the meantime - said: When you have talked to Helen you feel like having been given a precious present. Her wisdom and her kindness embrace you, as she can see beyond all boundaries, far into the past and into our future.
Helen’s vision has found a centre point, that is the reconstruction of her grandmother’s house to make it a centre of an art school for similar minded to teach the young the love and respect for the old traditions in order to understand the presence.
She wants to call out to her people: Listen to me, come home, and learn about your people, because only when you know who you are, what you are and where you come from, you can go out and meet the rest of the world, as you have learnt to keep your head high up in pride.
I knew her by the name of Helen Sebidi, she later adopted a new name, no not a new name, an old significant one, indicating her background. The book written about her and recently published carries her full name as title: Mmakgabo Mmapula Mmankgato Helen Sebidi.
She had always wanted me to write a book about her, as I knew her best, but we were living so far apart, with my circumstances of life keeping me busy and I had missed out so many years of her development and of the country she had lived in and which had undergone such important changes. What did I know of her losses and her victories. I would have had to live next to her for a long time to pick up the threads. Now, another woman has written this book, Juliette Leeb-du Toit, a South African woman, who had succeeded to describe Helen as the woman she is and what is important she has not tried to translate Helen’s specific language, her language of images which is so typical of her.
I have often asked myself how she fared on her way up to such height and recognitions – only two years ago she was given the silver needle award by the president of her country for her work and services for her country. She made me understand that her road there was often painful for body and soul. She is a woman who teaches not to hate and destroy but to love and forgive.
Mmakgabo Mmapula Mmankgato Helen Sebidi is at the moment working for her next solo exhibition in Johannesburg, she was asked to hold by the governement two years ago, and she has nearly finished. I have planned to be there for the occasion together with my family. That will then make 40 years that the two of us have worked together in Edenvale near Johannesburg.
Helen is my sister of heart, my children are her children and if the fact that I once made her a Chirstmas present of a complete painting outfit is the highest goal I wanted to reach in Life, then I have reached it.
Mmakgabo Mmapula Mmankgato Helen Sebidi
Published in 2009 by David Krut Publishing
ISBN : 978-0-9814188-7-2
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