Why must great artists who have contributed so much die unsung and largely unrecognised? What is wrong with this new South Africa that we cannot honour such courageous and visionary figures, asks Terry Grove, a guest contributor to the blog. By TERRY GROVE
On 11 June 2007, the artist from Meadowlands, Percy Sedumedi died. This notice was smsed by his youngest daughter, Itumeleng. “My dad passed away last night. Was with him yesterday afternoon, was convinced that he’s getting better but hey… TB.”
After the normal initial shock and sadness one feels at the loss of a loved one set in, I remonstrated with myself. TB - how is it possible for someone to die of a preventable or curable disease in the 21st century and in South Africa?
Not one of the myriad newspapers in South Africa carried an obituary, not in the week that he died or the weekend of his burial. What is wrong with us? How is it possible that not one of Percy’s friends thought of it?
I am not looking to apportion blame or indulge in a meaningless diatribe but I have so many niggling questions. Percy, talented artist – creator of the Messenger Series (I have one on my wall), and the comic “Travels of the Free Spirit”, founder member of the Soweto Artists Association and sculptor died penniless in a Johannesburg hospital.
How is it possible that one of the people who helped keep freedom’s dream alive in our hearts during the turbulent 70’s and 80’s died such an ignominious death a week before the 31st anniversary of the 16 June 1976 student uprising? Who in Soweto can forget the exhibition mounted by Percy, Fikile and others at the height of the ’76 uprising? Some of the works on display were drawn in the blood of the artists. This was done to demonstrate their solidarity with the students, despite the danger of imprisonment.
The anecdotes of Percy’s antics are legendary – some comical, some politically astute and others sad. He was the classic troubled genius – as art-lovers we marvel at his genius while, for his family, the troubled side, in terms of his role as husband and parent, was often the more immediate reality. Although he loved Connie and their girls, he never cracked the father- spouse thing. He did not quite get that having a family meant that material provision needed to be constant. Neither did he get it that being a dad means you actually need to be around when children are growing up.
For Percy there was no middle ground, always the high or the low – good or bad. And when they were good they were mind-blowing. My memories were mostly the mind- blowing stuff.
Percy entered my life when I was an adolescent. My father brought home a stranger one day in the late 70’s. He had met him on the Grand Parade in Cape Town. His artwork was rolled up and carried under his arm. He knew nobody in Cape Town but was determined to exhibit his work and not via the route of the white gallery owners.
So Percy came home to number 12 Sondousteeg, Silvertown and became one of my brothers. A strapping round-faced individual that fitted right in with the Matthews family. I was intrigued by his speech patterns. In one sentence he would use a mixture of Sotho, Zulu, English and Afrikaans and more often than not the sentence would end with “d’jy ken”. Percy was ahead of his time linguistically.
His artistic output during the period he spent in Cape Town was prolific. Not only did he draw and paint, he also made sculptures of plaster of Paris. These were baked in our kitchen oven.
When the Community Arts Project (CAP) was launched in Mowbray in the late 70’s, he conducted Sculpture classes that my brother Quinton and I attended for a while. My presence was merely to make up the numbers and to experience Percy the teacher.
That I had no obvious talent was no matter – art is for everybody and the communion of kindred spirits was enough. He made no distinction between people and embodied the concept ‘motho ke motho ka batho babang’.
Percy made me understand the nuances of South African life. Language and how he mixed it up forced me out of my English – Afrikaans comfort zone. He was as uninhibited as a child and the world became an infinitely wondrous place when he was around. He was so accepting of other people and their opinions.
David Blackwood, the Canadian artist from Newfoundland, says: “I’ve got a strong belief that people who’ve gone before are watching, observing. And they’re in a position to help you as well – I think they watch in a positive way”. I recall these words and I can almost hear Percy say, “I’m around, d’jy ken”, and I am comforted.
Percy Sedumedi was born on 6 October 1950 in Sophiatown. He married Connie Senoele and was the father of Lerato, Kagiso, Nina and Itumeleng.
By TERRY GROVE, Guest contributor.
(As always, readers are encouraged to comment and, in so doing, to keep debate and discussion alive!)