It’s not often that a renaissance is hatched from vacant office space, but that may be exactly what a group of former street artists, an inner-city landlord and a charity fundraiser have achieved with the establishment of a new art studio and gallery in Braamfontein, Joburg.

Edward Selematsela and seven other artists, some of whom until recently had to create their works on the streets, have secured 250m² of fully serviced and subsidised office space in the old Nedbank building on Jorissen Street, Braamfontein, where urban rejuvenation has been in full swing for the past decade.

For Selematsela, 48, it’s the realisation of a dream of many years: using his artistic abilities to support people from disadvantaged backgrounds.

"For any artist, a space where you can freely and safely practise your trade, and express your creativity, is something most people take for granted," he says. "But here in SA, many of us have had to do it on pavements, and under trees, bridges and plastic covers at taxi ranks."

Central to Selematsela’s project was the opportunity to accommodate the Little Artist School, which he established in 1995 as a child caregiver in the inner-city suburb of Marshalltown.

Making a mark: Artist Edward Selematsela in his studio at Nedbank Corner in Braamfontein. Picture: Gary Alfonso
Making a mark: Artist Edward Selematsela in his studio at Nedbank Corner in Braamfontein. Picture: Gary Alfonso

"Because of this safe space, we now take more than 200 disadvantaged children from schools and shelters with no arts programmes through painting and sculpture classes every week," he says.

"We sell our paintings and works to people visiting the gallery, and corporate clients are starting to request specially commissioned work from myself and the other artists."

Many people and companies have helped Selematsela reach his goal. But it was a chance meeting with philanthropist and fundraiser Sharry Banner three years ago that really opened the door to setting up the studio and gallery.

Banner, who was raising funds for the Society for Animals in Distress (Said), introduced Selematsela to property entrepreneur Pierre Simon, of Gatsby Property Partners, in 2018. With the help of Charity Unlimited, he secured the office space in Gatsby’s building.

"Turning a part of the office block in our building into an art gallery was never my intention," says Simon, "but after meeting Edward and Sharry I can honestly say their passion was so contagious it was a no-brainer."

Outreach: Selematsela’s studio is also home to the Little Artists School. Picture: Gary Alfonso
Outreach: Selematsela’s studio is also home to the Little Artists School. Picture: Gary Alfonso

For the broader community of property professionals in that part of the city, an art studio run by former street artists and orphans fits perfectly with the developing story of the area.

Ndumiso Davidson, CEO of Braamfontein-based student housing and property development company South Point, says the precinct is characterised by its unique mix of artists, young people, entrepreneurs, NGOs and corporates.

"It’s no secret that Braamfontein is on the up and up. Over the past 10 years, we’ve been able to attract a mix of national and international office and retail tenants," says Davidson.

"Over the past decade the district has evolved from a somewhat hipster-driven, artisanal-boutique kind of city play-space into a more considered and curated urban ecosystem through the introduction of more commercial and sustainable tenants."

Davidson believes much of the success of the area lies in a "strategic and curatorial approach to tenancy", specifically targeting the creative industries and NGO sector. At the same time, he says, his company looks to ensure an environment that’s attractive to office workers.

What it means:

The studio includes the Little Artists School, which gives free art and sculpture lessons to disadvantaged children

"We’ve created a walkable node that’s also home to great coffee shops, a mix of interesting dining options and required services," he says.

"We prefer to innovate, rather than imitate, unlocking our unique selling points as a district."

At present, he says, work is under way to redevelop Braamfontein’s old alleyways, creating attractive pedestrian links.

"By nature, we’re partnership-orientated, co-developing and implementing concepts, driven by strong design, public art and placemaking, which underscores much of our regeneration work."

Back in the studio, Selematsela notes that proceeds from the sale of paintings go to the artists themselves, but also support the resource and development needs of the Little Artist School. In addition, a small cut goes to initiatives supporting the Said hospital in Midrand.

Selematsela says the new gallery has sharply increased interest in the artworks produced by him and his fellow artists. Some local corporates have already requested exhibitions, and the collective has been asked to make art available for international platforms and events promoting art from Africa.

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