Thursday, 28 June 2007

A great artist who drew in blood - tribute to Sedumedi

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!)


Letters To My Younger Brothers & Sisters said...

He was brave, bold, talented, intelligent and oh-so-funny.
He pushed every boundary he came across. His creativity lives on.
This article is a good reflection of my dad. On point.

Turiya said...

I'm not suprised. All I got was: "PS. I'm sure you know Percy Sedumedi and Nhlanhla Mbatha are dead." Nothing else no blog no obituary no how di they die or when. Both great friends who I morn... Why nothing said was because the media was not fed. Nobody sent press realease. No jornalist who knows Ta' Percy's greatness works in media anymore.

But what about other artists what about Nhlanhla Mbatha? How did he die? Was he not great?

I loved Percy, I glorified going to the Market Theatre just to see him. He was always happy and I was happy he knew me.

"ehh Thando!" he would shout across the street. I felt proud to be known by Ta' Percy and always hoped to hear his theories on life, all of which never dissapointed me.

He said once. Don't complain about obvious things like the sun is hot, it's been hot all your life...

I send my condolences to his daughters who were my age and tell them what I believe. Your Father Lives, through all of us who were touched by him.

Turiya Magadlela

Tembi Mbobo said...

When you've known and been quite close to a character like Sedumedi Sedumedi all your adult life, that is, the better part of 25 years, it is hard to accept their passing. Worse still if the passing of such a great artist goes unlamented and unannounced, it surely is a crime.

I was already in England when my daughter Turiya gave me the news. I immediately went on-line to see what kind of an orbituary the Mail & Guardian and/or The Sowetan had written of this funny genius. Needless to say I found nothing.

I was married to Fikile when I first met Percy and ours was to be a lifelong friendship, continuing long after I had parted ways with my husband.

Percy, who spent many a night at our abode could be both endearing and annoying. Annoying because he couldn't keep his pennies in his pockets long enough to reach his wife and daughters. But he could reach a shebeen faster. Well, most artists at the time tended to make these watering holes their homes.

I remember many an ocassion when Percy would quickly scribble a painting, say in a shebeen or somewhere around the Market Theatre, then flog it to anyone who could spare a buck.

It was such a pity. But I hope his infectious laughter is still booming in the world yonder, with his mates Fikile, Cyril, Winston and others. I was blessed to have known them all.

May their families be consoled by the fact that such genius did pass through this world.

Anonymous said...

He was MY DAD and I Loved him to bits He was my best buddy no matter what. I couldnt let his ways stand between us thats why i miss him so much.He used to help me with my illustration assignments and he had a lot of my kiddies wear range illustrations ahead of him but God wanted him too.last time i saw him he agreed with a smile when i asked him about my illustrations thats why i thought i was going to see him the next day only to recieve a call that evining about Percy my dad's death.I always feel his spirit when im around people who knew him well he is so immortal in my heart an thoughts REST IN PEACE DAD LOVE ALWAYS NINA

biddy partridge said...

In London, I googled Percy Sedumedi and found the news of his passing. Years later. Felt like someone had kicked me in the stomach.
Free Spirit, The Messenger, with his flute and his pen and his funny wise stories. It's fitting in a way that there is no blog, no obituary in the mainstream because he always swam against it. But maybe we could publish what we have of him (sketches, cards, memories, photos) online somewhere. He should never be forgotten.

hatim said...

" A brother is a brother through another brother" mused Percy in his inimitable ways. Be at peace .
I have works by Percy to remember the days of " sobbing thirst " coined by Fikile. Percy , pained at heart radiated joy to all the ill health that surrounded me.