Mmakgabo Mapula Helen Sebidi was born in Marapyane in the Hammanskraal area of Limpopo. Her first teacher of art was her grandmother, a traditional artist who passed on to her granddaughter the vernacular aesthetic, which has such a strong presence in Sebidi’s work. They lived a rural life, cultivating crops, making mud they used to construct walls and floors and which they then decorated. They also made and decorated calabashes. From her mother she learnt dressmaking and embroidery. Helen stresses the importance of acquiring these traditional skills in order to be an artist versed in a vital culture.
Mmakgabo was concerned with the development of art appreciation and art education and taught at the Katlehong Art Centre and then at the Johannesburg Art Foundation and the Alexandra Art Centre. She participated in numerous art projects with community organisations such as the Funda Art Centre and the Thupelo Art Workshop.
In 1988, she was awarded a Fulbright Scholarship and worked at the Millay Centre for the Arts in New York and exhibited at the Worldwide Economic Contemporary Artists’ Fund exhibition. In 1989, she won the Standard Bank Young Artist Award as well as the AA Vita Award, and soon became widely known in South Africa and internationally. Her work is routinely included in standard reference books on South African art. In 2008, she was awarded the Order of the Baobab in Gold by the South African Presidency for her ‘excellent contribution in the field of visual and traditional arts and crafts’.