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Country on the move

Jane Norrie sees a show of South African art inspire London children.

Children are being asked to point out South Africa on the map. Questions are fired at them: "Who is Nelson Mandela?" "What was apartheid and what was wrong with it?" "What is different about the new South Africa?" But they are not in a history or geography lesson. They are at an introduction to an art workshop.

Thirty children from Year 6 at the Argyle School, Camden, north London, visited an exhibition of contemporary art from South Africa.

Education officer Helen Charman and visiting artist Pat Mautloa from Johannesburg were helping the pupils understand the show at the October Gallery in Camden.

An educational trust with charitable status, the October Gallery promotes artists from many different cultures across the world. A policy that is especially valuable in Camden where many people are from ethnic minorities.

This exhibition - the first from a Festival of Art and Music from post-apartheid South Africa - contained work by four cutting-edge artists. The art might at first sight have seemed puzzling to 11-year-olds. Personal details, such as receipts and hospital records, had been sealed and hung in plastic bags. Metal pieces had been welded into a looming figure, entitled "The Scars of Liberty".

Armed with gallery resource packs, and urged to study the work and value their own interpretations, the class began to offer their ideas about what they saw. They correctly identified the plywood, corrugated iron, bolts and even pistachio nuts used by Pat Mautloa to convey the embattled spirit of township life, guessed at the aims behind his abstraction, and provided their own titles for the figurative sculpture. Among them was the inspired comment "Never Again", which aptly summed up the essence of the show.

Too often workshops depend heavily on making, rather than interpreting, activities. But I felt this session showed how children leap to the challenge of "difficult" work, provided they are not underestimated.

Having a captive artist on hand was a major bonus. As a background to the theme of recycling rubbish into art, Pat Mautloa explained how many South African artists prefer to use local non-western materials, often rescued from rubbish bins. Partly a money-saving tactic, it is also a creative challenge and invests the work with an authentic spirit of place.

In an education room above the gallery, the class were divided into threes then let loose with their own materials - textiles, paper tissue, shells, pistachio and peanut shells, cocktail sticks, glue and paint which had to be applied with fingers or a spatula, but not a brush.

Echoing one of Pat Mautloa's own wall pieces, each group worked on the idea of a house. An hour later some interesting work had been produced.

None of the children spoke English as their first language, some had only recently arrived in London, yet many artistic devices seemed to have been absorbed without being articulated. Some of the pieces had marked architectural references using squares, circles and crosses.

There were colourful cross-sections of furnishings, walls and gardens. Notions of framing had also been understood and the idea of inserting a picture within a picture.

The class teacher Julie Dent, who uses the gallery often, praised the benefits of these pupil visits. "The quality of the children's art work leaps enormously and becomes more experimental. They associate the gallery with a very peaceful morning when their work is very focused so they learn that concentrated work produces rewards," she says.

"From the multicultural point of view, it is very affirmative, helping the children to be positive about their own countries. It especially helps children who have only recently come here to achieve and grow more confident."

Africa the next phase: Africa 2 Tradition in Transition until July 27. For details about the education programme phone Elisabeth Lalouschek on 0171 242 7367 from Tuesday to Saturday 12.30pm to 5.30pm. The annual exhibition of children's work will be on view July 17-21

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