The teacher with a big heart

2011-07-07 00:00

DUMISANI Shange is no ordinary teacher, he is an artist-in-residence at the Dargle Primary School. His job is to use his imagination and talent to weave creativity into the lives of rural children.

The Room 13 project started in 2008 and the idea is to teach children art skills which they can adapt later in life to earn a living.

For many children who attend the humble but happy rural school, they have limited choices when it comes to entering the job market. Many cannot afford tertiary education and they are competing with children who have better education and a higher level of training.

The Room 13 project aims to give these children a different kind of advantage by giving them skills of an unusual kind. They are taught how to use art and their imagination as a means to become self-employed. Some of the skills they are taught are painting, beadwork, carving, woodwork, wirework and drawing.

For the children at the Dargle Primary School, Shange has been a huge blessing. His lessons — usually one hour each day — are the lesson they most look forward to. Away from books and free from rigid concentration, they can let their imaginations go wild.

“Thisha singangena egumini?” (Teacher can we enter the class?). Eager faces peer into the class where we are doing the interview.

Shange’s bright smile and encouraging words are the only excuse they need and many find their way into the Room 13 class at break and after school where they finish off projects he has given them. Shange’s own school experience was quite different.

“I was always drawing in my books and I was often given six hard ones for wasting my time.” His teachers did not appreciate his artistic abilities, and he had no outlet for them.

But he persevered and he would study people and their expressions, and he became a very good self-taught portrait artist. One elderly man noticed that Shange was always watching him and he came to see what Shange was drawing. Shange said: “He shook his stick at me and said, ‘Ja, I should hit you, but you are very good — you are lucky!’”

Shange was forced to leave school early in Grade 10 as his father was retrenched and he had to help earn money for his family. He got a job in Durban as a hospital porter at King Edward VIII Hospital. In his spare time he made extra money by sketching the staff and their families. After 10 years of working at the hospital, he took the plunge and began to work for himself at Wilson’s Wharf doing portraits.

“I attended part-time art classes at the African Art Centre and I was chosen as the best student. Then I was given a scholarship to study fine art at the Natal Technikon [now the Durban University of Technology]. It was a wonderful opportunity, but when I finished it was a difficult thing to find full-time employment.

“An artist always has to worry about finances, and then I was offered the opportunity to teach as part of the Room 13 project.” The project approaches sponsors, who pay him a small salary, but he must raise funds to run the class as an artists’ studio.

“I felt happy and a little worried. They said I would be working with primary school kids in the midlands and I thought the kids would be too young to understand the concepts.” Shange was pleasantly surprised. The children learnt quickly and the quality of their work was astounding. Shange quickly overcame his skepticism and he has never looked back.

The best works of art are sold via the Room 13 website to raise money for the project. Shange enjoys the support of the other teachers and the encouragement of Gladys Ncwabe, the headmistress, who even attended some early lessons to see how the children were progressing. Shange has kept some of her early drawings to remind her to come back and join them again.

The art lessons pay off in the other subjects as drawing skills have improved and tasks are completed with more creativity. More attention is paid to texture and shapes. Shange himself says his own creativity has been unleashed as he no longer has the financial anxiety that used to limit his abilities.

The beautiful midlands landscape provides endless inspiration for him, and although he does not have much in the way of materials, he uses them creatively. One year the children planted a school vegetable garden in the colours of the rainbow.

In his classroom projects are in various stages of completion: pots, paintings, wooden sculptures and wire art, and portraits, of course. While the materials at hand are humble, the results are quite amazing. Using ordinary newspaper-mâché they moulded life-like creatures with very realistic proportions.

Shange also believes that the lesson­s give the children a chance to learn about their culture. He sends them home to observe what they might see in their home environment, and after observing their father ploughing the fields, or watching their mother crushing mielies, they come back to class with details they can translate into their art.

While some of the art is traditional — some have drawn pictures of great Zulu warriors — other children are inspired by modern tales of clashes between rugby teams. Some of the art is even surreal, as Shange believes in letting each child express himself or herself in the way in which they feel most comfortable.

Privileged children may take art for granted, but for these kids it is a chance to escape from the daily grind of life into a world where possibilities exist. For many, attending school involves a 10-kilometre walk and when they return home they are expected to do chores.

Shange’s own easel is held together with wire, and the canvas is held up by sticks, but his artistic spirit is fed by the enthusiasm and thirst of these children. He is their role model and mentor, and he gives them hope.Their art is sold on the Room 13 website ( like any legitimate artist and this gives them a sense of self-worth.


• Anyone who is able to donate art supplies to Dumisani Shange for the project can contact Trish Beaver at 033 355 1370. Shange would be extremely grateful.

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