Mmakgabo Sebidi traverses mental and physical landscapes with an eye trained on the dangerous, the discomfiting, the traumatic and the ecstatic in human experience. She is deeply grounded in her rural upbringing and traditions but also finely attuned to the rhythms of the city in which she has spent much of her adult life. Sebidi brings together these two worlds in works of great visionary and prophetic power. Her themes are wide-ranging: her cultural roots, the wisdom of the ancestors, the ravages of the modern world on the human psyche, the loss of tradition, the potential of human creativity to build relationships and restore the past.
Sebidi trained in a number of informal art institutions in Johannesburg and for many years exhibited her work – mostly ceramics, landscapes and figurative scenes drawn from her home in Marapyane – at venues such as Artists Under the Sun in Johannesburg and Pietermaritzburg. But while working at the Johannesburg Art Foundation under the tutelage of David Koloane and Bill Ainslie, Sebidi made her first semi-abstract work, a frenzied, visionary work produced in a marathon of painting that terrified the artist and prompted Ainslie to describe it as her ‘miracle’. This marked a dramatic shift for Sebidi, away from her figurative works and landscapes and into a new idiom that is part figuration and part abstraction but that always seeks to escape the boundaries of both. Sebidi’s works pulsate with energy. They are dense and exuberant, both formally and thematically. Layers and layers of rich impasto are applied in painstaking detail, often on top of drip paintings. Strange figures, some fantastical and mythological, and some drawn from her own richly storied history, jostle for space on the crowded canvases. At times they evoke a sense of celebration and at other times of terror and loss.
Sebidi has participated in many group and solo shows. She won the Standard Bank Young Artist of the Year Award in 1989, the Vita Art Award in 1990, and the Silver Award of the Order of Ikhamanga in 2004. Her work is in many private and public collections in South Africa and abroad, including Iziko South African National Gallery; the Johannesburg Art Gallery; and the Smithsonian Institution.