A life stitched and painted

2008-12-08 00:00

HANGING on the wall outside the Tatham Art Gallery shop is a fabric panel. But this is not just a decorative item; it is the story of one remarkable life — a story that goes back over the generations to sex across the colour line and forward to recognition for making a difference in post-apartheid society.

The story is Beauty Sekete’s, but the artwork grew from a collaboration. It all began during October when the Celebrating Change: Tapestries Telling Stories exhibition was in the gallery. Tatham director Brendan Bell spoke to his education team and suggested they work on creating a local response. Kobie Venter of the Education Department says they did not want just to mimic the exhibition — beaded panels depicting life in various communities — but they were not sure what to do. Alhough they had some money in the kitty, it could not be an expensive project either.

So they spoke to Sekete, one of the most energetic and successful community workers in the greater Edendale area, a long-standing Tatham collaborator and the 2002 Shoprite Checkers Woman of the Year — just one of her many awards. Sekete is also a seamstress and she put together a team of four to work on the project — herself, another seamstress, Tholakele Ngongo, and artists Bonginkosi Ngcobo and Siyabonga Sikosana. Other people who gave input were beadworker Eunice Cele and fabric artist Jutta Faulds.

As the artists and the Tatham team of Venter, Thulani Makhaye and Phumlani Ntshangase talked over their ideas, they decided the panel should concentrate on Sekete’s life and work within the local community. Despite the recognition Sekete’s awards have given her, her achievements are not as widely known as they should be and the panel offers a unique insight into both her public persona and her personal story.

The lowest section shows a scene in Emunywini in the Vulindlela District, where Sekete has set up 11 groups doing beadwork and sewing. The team visited the area and were greeted by Bawinile Nzimande, whose scarlet costume, decorated with beads and keys, is faithfully reproduced, along with cattle, chickens and rural scenes. There is also the Lutho Primary School and a wonderful washing line hung with multicoloured clothes, and tied to a “School” road sign. Above it, a row of “Chickenman”-style signs carry the names of the four artists.

In the middle section, there are eight painted panels, stitched on to the backing. The top four are landscapes, meticulously painted by Ngcobo and Sikosana, and showing scenes from the Edendale area. Below them, four more show Sekete as a schoolgirl, carrying washing on her head after school for her mother; in her days as a jazz singer; working at her sewing machine; and as a nurse.

It was when she was nursing at Edendale Hospital that Sekete’s life began on the course that led her to where she is now. The then matron of the hospital, Margaret Knox, arranged a scholarship for the young nurse to go to the University of the North at Turfloop. On her return, she studied for an honours degree in social science at the University of KwaZulu-Natal. Her academic success is recognised at the top of the panel, with a figure sitting in the top branches of a tree, wearing a mortar board — an academic cap. Above her are the moon and stars, the stars with tiny logos of all those who have helped and sponsored Sekete’s 23 community projects. Their names appear elsewhere as well. Bernina, which has backed her sewing work for some time and provided material for the panel, features in the sewing machine.

But it is what is below the tree that is at the heart of the panel and at the heart of the personal journey that its creation has been for Sekete. In a semi-circle of blue fabric are three figures, a bearded white man, a traditionally dressed Zulu woman and, between them in their outstretched hands, a tiny baby. “My grandmother worked for a farming family at Mount Partridge,” says Sekete. “My grandmother and the farmer went beyond the master-servant relationship and my mother was born.” Sekete’s mother is the infant, with her name, Dukile (lost) embroidered below her.

Sekete tells how her grandmother had to return to her home in Tongaat — an 18-year-old girl, with a half-white baby. It shocked the community, but they still accepted her, slaughtering a goat so that the ancestors would accept Dukile as a family member. Later, her grandmother would marry and have four more children, returning to the Edendale area.

“My mother, being the first born, had to walk to Oribi every day to work and to support her siblings,” says Sekete. It was in Oribi that she would meet her husband, Sekete’s father. “He was a driver and very handsome,” she says. Sekete’s mother, now 88 years old, came to the launch of the work.

The story is one that probably occurred countless times in South Africa’s race-bedevilled history. But Sekete points out something in the way she has chosen to depict the event. The farmer is giving her grandmother the child, not taking something from her. It is a poignant scene and a moving description of it.

“I’ve always read in the papers about people looking for missing relatives and thought how sad that is,” says Sekete. “But I have also lost relatives. These people are my relations and that man is my grandfather. He and my grandmother had no further contact. I have never met any of them, although I know the name. One day, I’ll go to the archives and find out about them.”

At the launch of the work, says Venter, Sekete simply said of these unknown relations: “I wish them well.”

Sekete says that at the outset she was concerned that what the artistic team were doing was “embarrassingly me, me, me”. But she says she has also found it a way to reflect and look back on her past, and realise how much she has done in her life. “And I am grateful to the people and organisations who have made me realise it,” she says.

We are often told that a picture is worth 1 000 words. Few tellings of a story in words are as powerful as this depiction of one local life.

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