College of Human Sciences

Viva, woke woman art!

The Unisa Art Gallery has grown its permanent art collection and added African-inspired acquisitions with a rich symbolic meaning by, among others, two prominent female artists, Mmakgabo Helen Sebidi and Claudette Schreuders.

Jacob Lebeko, Assistant Curator at the gallery, says that the acquisition of art is inspired by a variety of factors. "We purchase artworks, firstly, because they will serve as educational tools to our Visual Arts students, and, secondly, because they are relevant for the growth of the Unisa permanent art collection that has been in existence since the late 1970s," he says.

After lobola (Married) (2008) Nine-colour lithograph

"The collected pieces are weighed on individual merit. Some of the art is considered based on its cutting-edge approach, while some is purchased to close gaps in what the gallery is missing. The gallery also supports young and upcoming artists with the hope that they will become household names. Importantly, however, we always consider the subject matter of the art."

Since its inception in 1986, the Unisa Art Gallery has grown to be a significant exhibition space in South Africa. The gallery owns a permanent collection of contemporary South African and international art. Every Unisan should visit it to experience the best of local and international art. Until you do, here is a virtual preview of After lobola, by Sebidi, and Loved ones, by Schreuders.

Mmakgabo Helen Sebidi is an extraordinary artist who has been awarded the Order of Ikhamanga (Silver) by the Office of The Presidency. In a book on her by David Krut, she says of her grandmother: "I remember lying down next to my grandmother while she was making the floor out of cow dung. I wanted to see why her floors were different to everybody else’s, so I lay down to watch her and I saw her fingers."

Sebidi says the cattle in After lobola (Married) are a way of saying thanks to the ancestors for growing her. "The woman’s true nature is only revealed once the couple are married and lobola has been paid," she says. "The snake in her hand (lower right-hand side of print) is the woman’s true nature, which is revealed after marriage. The snake is a symbol of danger, resulting from her decisions as she has become a dangerous woman. The snake shows the effects of city life. Once a woman is highly educated and earns more money than her husband, it begins to create problems in their marriage. She also becomes pretentious and a snake thus represents her nature."

Claudette Schreuders creates carved and painted wooden figures that reflect the ambiguities of the search for an “African” identity in the post-apartheid 21st century. She says that the domain of woodcarving is a contested one for a white Afrikaans woman, yet the subtractive process of carving offers a certain lack of control that she enjoys.

Loved ones (2018) Jelutong wood, enamel and oil paint

Schreuders’s sculptures are essentially modern deities for modern problems. "They take with them the figures’ potential to 'cure', as well as engaging with issues around foreignness and hostility and the means we use to create a space for ourselves in a perceived 'alien' environment."

The artist describes herself as something of a perfectionist, working slowly and indulging in her labour-intensive process, which she sees as quite revelatory in terms of understanding intention and desire. Explaining her artwork, Schreuders says: "I think what I’m interested in is telling stories. It’s portraiture, but it’s a vehicle for telling a particular story, or the way in which society makes people who they are, or the group against the individual."

* By Tshimangadzo Mphaphuli, Senior Journalist, Department of Institutional Advancement

This article first appeared in YOUNISA, Issue 1, 2020.

Publish date: 2020/08/18