The Little Artist School is one of the great SA tales of hope, compassion and overcoming the odds. Back in 1995, the country was full of optimism about the future, though there were many children who needed help to overcome the poverty and neglect that had imperilled poor communities, particularly in the rapidly changing inner city of Jozi. It was in that year, at an orphanage on 180d Albert Street, that the project was started by social entrepreneur and fine artist Edward Selematsela.
Selematsela had worked as a child and youth caregiver in an orphanage while studying fine art. His commitment to the children led to his idea to use art as a tool to get them off the streets and away from a life of crime and neglect after they finished their school day. One of the most important aspects he wanted to instil in the kids entering his art school was that they could change how they felt about themselves; that they could build themselves a future as an artist or as an active participant in the country’s creative economy.
Since then, the school has expanded and grown, and its key goals now are to:
- Raise funding for its students to be able to attend university or college;
- Encourage its senior students to apply for advanced courses in art education and project management; and prepare them for tertiary education by assisting them in compiling their art portfolios when requesting sponsorship or funding from individuals or donors; and
- Develop competence in students who are willing to undertake the daily running of the project.
The use of art as a social development tool is integral to the school. Besides learning creativity, students are taught how to accept responsibilities, become mentors to other students and to gain self-confidence in their own abilities.
Since its inception almost 30 years ago, more than 1,500 children have benefited from Little Artist School’s tuition. The project has sponsored several students’ further education and training after they completed grade 12, and many have become practising artists.
Ndivhuo Munungufhala, Keletso Matlakala and Nditsheni Managa were sponsored to attend printmaking classes at the Artist Proof Studio in Newtown, Johannesburg, where they graduated in 2014. Graduates Buhle Hlatshwayo and Thami Mnyele were among the top 100 of the Sasol Young Signatures Awards, and Cynthia Sifa graduated from the Artist Proof Studio in 2020.
Little Artist students and mentors have featured in many prominent exhibitions and been shown in prestigious galleries over the past 20 years, including the Johannesburg Art Gallery and the Travelling Art Gallery in Germany.
There are two concurrent exhibitions at the headquarters of FirstRand Ltd, the sponsors of the programme. One showcases a selection of work by the school’s students, in different age categories and using different mediums and sources of inspiration, in which they are helped by mentors at the school. They include:
- Water-based painting (ages 4-16): traditional watercolours and the use of water-based paints form the basis for images drawn from the students’ everyday life in a tranquil and colourful medium.
- Waste material recycling (ages 4-16): making these works, mostly from discarded paper, enables the learning of techniques such as collage and papier-mâché sculpting while also learning about the environment and hygiene.
- Found objects depicting birds (ages 4-16): using materials to hand for artwork tests and stretches the children’s ingenuity and lateral thinking, leading to delightful inventions.
- Tapestry and embroidery (ages 13 and older): The discipline and patience required in these mediums teaches valuable life skills as well as employable craft skills for the world of work.
The second exhibition showcases work by the senior mentors and teachers at the school, who are all professional artists. They include:
- Buhle Hlatshwayo, whose work focuses on depictions of the everyday lives of Johannesburg’s people, using the flexible medium of oil pastels, which he manipulates with thinners.
- Hendrick Kgosane works in the medium of acrylic and charcoal and depicts the various forms of religious observance in Johannesburg, especially the figure of women in religious uniform.
- Nditsheni Managa, one of the senior mentors of the school, works in found and mixed mediums to portray a range of vivid and textured landscape and still-life works.
- Lucas Kumba also uses a range of mediums to offer mixed-medium painting and collage depictions of everyday Johannesburg people and scenes.
- Lesego Ditshego, who besides her involvement with the School is also a successful graduate of Artist Proof Studio in Johannesburg. Her prints focus on the realities and challenges of female identity in society.
- Little Artist founder Edward Selematsela contributes to the exhibition as an artist in his own right, working in mixed mediums and found materials to express his views of the world.
Work from students at the Little Artist is on display at Art@First, 4 Merchant Place, Sandton until the end of January 2024. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org to arrange a visit.
Teachers’ work is on display at Art&About at 8 Merchant Place, Sandton, also until the end of January 2024, and is open to the public on weekdays from 9am to 4pm.
All artwork is for sale.