|Peter Sibeko, a mixed media specialist, was born in Orlando East on July 22, 1940. He comes from a family of eight, and is the third child in the family. Sibeko dropped out of school when he was 15 to get a job to help his mother with the family finances. Sibeko’s parents never married and the children were raised by their mother, assisted by their maternal grandmother. But even before Sibeko left school his teachers had noticed his natural artistic talent and encouraged him accordingly. Sibeko remembers going to the movies and watching films like the Ten Commandments he would go home and draw the picture as he saw it. He says, “I would just sit around in the streets, using my pencil and just draw people as they moved up and down; I was able to draw almost anything.”
When he was about 19, Sibeko met Hugh Resin, an art gallery owner in Doornfontein, Johannesburg. Resin was impressed by Sibeko’s work and as a result wanted to travel abroad with him so that he could study art. However, his mother was uncomfortable with this arrangement, and refused, thinking that her son would never return to South Africa.
He was, however, determined to pursue a career in art and in 1971 was spotted by David Mbele, an established artist. Impressed by what he saw, Mbele mentored Sibeko and introduced him to charcoal. Similarly, Solomon Sikhaulela taught him oil painting and so he learned different techniques and media.
While Sibeko could not leave his formal job in order to help the family, he managed to focus on art and spent most of his weekends selling his artworks in places like Johannesburg’s Carlton Centre as well as at galleries.
Sibeko’s work is a reflection of township suffering. His own experience with poverty left him psychologically scared and he found solace only through art. Sibeko explains why his work was a reflection of the township situation: “At times there was no food on the table, no clothes, so some of my paintings were about my mother, doing washing for people, she brought us up with the little bit that she got for doing domestic work. My paintings expressed life in Soweto, more especially the life we lived. But there were some good times when we would be happy, and we would show people dancing, etc.”
The exploitation of black artists by art buyers who took advantage of them as financially needy is not forgotten by Sibeko and other black artists. Family pressures often required they had to put something on the table every time they sold anything. “You need to know that while white people exploited us, we also allowed it because we were desperate for money. If you were working and not hungry you wouldn’t just sell your artwork cheap, but if a person says to you “take it or leave it” and you are hungry, the first thing you think of is your home, there is no food, and you are forced to agree‚ “they could see that we were hungry.”
In 1986 Sibeko decided to open a gallery in Johannesburg which was later named the Soweto Art Gallery. Sibeko left his full time job in favour of this new venture and it started as an art studio but soon developed into a fully fledged gallery. To him the art gallery was extremely important on many counts as it was well positioned in the centre of the city, and so Soweto artists were able to assemble their work at one point for the purposes of selling in wider markets. The art gallery has since become a window for many black artists in and around Soweto. Without funding from any sector the gallery has become Sibeko’s livelihood.
Sibeko continues to work as an artist. He still lives in Soweto and some of his children have embraced art as a career.
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