28 Artworks Miraculously Return to South Africa After Being Lost for 30 years

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Helen Sebidi presenting her collection sketches to a class, outlining the ancestors and strong women that steers her work Sep. 21. 2016. (Mail&Guardian)

Helen Sebidi, born in South Africa in 1943, is a globally recognized artist. Her art, which won the Standard Bank Young Artist award in 1989, has appeared in major exhibitions in New York, Washington, and the World Bank and was subsequently considered by President Thabo Mbeki as a “national treasure.”

Influenced by the painting techniques of her grandmother, Helen’s work derives from her experiences and observations of the dehumanizing home she grew up in, a township buffeted by the strong and unforgiving winds of apartheid South Africa. “I remember lying down while she [grandmother] was making the floor out of cow dung,” Helen remarks. Through her grandmother’s techniques, Helen was taught the philosophies of expression and community building and the importance of rejuvenating lost traditional moral values of pre-colonial societies in South Africa, ideas most prominently portrayed in her current artworks.

Nonetheless, Helen’s trip to Sweden brought about an unexpected turn of events. The trip hoped to embody her representation of South Africa’s new democracy to the Swedish city of Nyköping and its respective high school and establish links with rising Swedish artists via an art exhibition. With her, Helen brought a cache of 33 recently made artworks.

Charcoal-based Tears of Africa (1988) marks the tumultuous period in Helen’s life in which the artworks were created — having lost a close friend and exiled from her rural home. The piece characterizes her inclination for cramped, distorted figures in chaotic dark backgrounds with warped facial features, some meeting at sharp right angles.

Mmakgabo Helen Sebidi, Charcoal-based mixed media, Tears of Africa, 1987-88

Helen brilliantly incarnated the struggles of Black South Africans into a multifaceted array of pieces after years of relentless efforts and manifestation. Complementary to her predilections towards preserving ancestorial values held by her grandmother, the collection was named The Walking House (“Ntlo E Etsamayang”)

“They are frantic, and fast and you can see the hand movement throughout every single drawing; an expression and an outlet to deal with her trauma,” describes Gabriel Baard, co-curator at the University of Johannesburg Art Gallery, who recognizes Helen’s immaculate expression of her emotional health and sensibility through her art.

Bayeng (Visitation), particularly reflects Helen’s visions during a previous car incident, in which she almost lost her life. “The women, the voices came from deep green, very deep green and the road I wanted to go to my mother, was black, black, black, and the other side was this strong, beautiful forest,” Helen remembers.

Mmakgabo Helen Sebidi, Bayeng (Visitation), pastel on paper collage, a piece apart of The Walking House collection, 1991

Yet, the exhibition was never put on. Helen left being told the organization would reinvite her when there was more space in the gallery. Still, a year goes by without a word before. It is not long until Helen is informed of her work being lost — even worse — stolen.

Despite 3 decades of efforts and attention to restoration, the pieces were still able to remain in the void; it looked like a missed opportunity. “People were really excited about imaging what a new democracy looked like; corporates and organizations wanted to buy young artists’ work, put it on their wall, and take down the kind of impressionist European posters,” corroborates Kim Berman, a professor of visual arts of the University of Johannesburg.

In May, caretaker Jesper Ostereberg opened a long-forgotten cupboard where he found a roll of artwork with Helen’s name written on it. “The Walking House” collection was finally found after 30 long-awaited years. Unfortunately, Helen and her team couldn’t identify a culprit, or if there even was one.

Regardless, the history behind the artworks is truly worth reminiscing. The collection comments on the corruptive nature of cultural imperialism. It is “a house I am building in you,” says Helen, “it has to walk, has to be strong, and show the Europe people that there is a place where their sun-sets and our sun-rise, ” she adds.

With excitement, the collection is now on exhibition at the UJ Art Gallery. Helen believes the collection “was hidden by those ancestors wanting the current generation to prepare ourselves for the bigger voice, bigger energy.” Through it, she hopes to influence the university to advocate for their students about indigenous knowledge. “African knowledge systems need to be created and must be launched and must be in free places.” Additionally, Helen wants to “connect with the ruralists” and make “traditional people understand the federation and communication with printmaking” to see “improvement in their lives.”

Onlookers gasped as Helen’s work was unrolled for the first time. “I saw the faces actually at the top of the triptych kind of peering out to me,” Baard described.

Helen’s artworks are a reminder of the strong bonds that result from “artistic expression and cross-cultural dialogue.” Highlighting the resilience of such connections over time, the collection’s masterpieces revive essential chapters in South Africa’s historical consciousness, portraying the exploration between “humanism and spiritualism” in contemporary Black African experiences. In other words, Helen’s work is truly timeless.

See more of Helen’s artworks here.

Written by Julia Jiang

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