Joan Yoskin Needham '97: Art Provides New Opportunities in South Africa

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  • joan needham
  • joan needham circle sculpture
  • joan needham wall sculpture
  • joan yoskin needham contained scrap metal 2011 48x15x15
  • joan needham forklift
  • joan yoskin needham puffer welded stainless steel rods 2015 14 x16 x10

by Joan Yoskin Needham '97

In 2006, a friend of mine asked me if I would be interested in volunteer teaching in Khayelitsha, a township outside of Cape Town, South Africa. I had retired from the Fine Arts department at Mercer County Community College after 36 years of teaching and I was interested in going.

Residents in Khayelitsha build their homes of salvaged pieces of cardboard, wood, sheet metal, wooden planks, advertising boards, plastic tarps and chipboard -- whatever had been abandoned, traded or donated. It creates a visual patchwork of amazing colors. The homes are truly works of art and the residents have a strong sense of community and share whatever they can with their neighbors.

In the middle of all of this is the Philani Maternal, Child Health and Nutrition Project, a community-based child health and nutrition center. Philani means “to get well” in the African language of Xhosa.

The project aims to rehabilitate malnourished children across 10 townships. A lack of basic services, inadequate housing, widespread unemployment, poverty and high rates of HIV/AIDS result in poor health in Philani’s communities. Twenty percent of the population in these areas is made up of children younger than six years of age. Without intervention, one in ten will be underweight and one in four will not reach his or her full growth due to lack of nutrition.

Since 1979, Philani has been working to alleviate these problems.


An income-generating art and craft program was created and is an integral part of Philani’s employment project, offering unemployed women the chance to learn weaving, silk-screen and beading skills.

Kate Somers, the curator of the Bernstein Gallery at the Woodrow Wilson School, Princeton University, wanted me to go with her for the month of February in 2007. Our participation arose from an ongoing relationship between Philani and Princeton University. Kate had visited the nutrition center the year before and wanted to go back. 

I thought of all the years that I ran the Printmaking department at Mercer and knew exactly what we would do.

We e-mailed my ideas about a linoleum block printing program to the Philani director and sent a basic course description of what I would present to the students.


I had no idea how many students would show up, but I packed 12 of everything. Printmaking paper, unmounted easy-to-cut linoleum blocks, nontoxic water-based inks, brayers, cutter sets, scissors, masking tape, etc. My suitcase for all of my supplies just made it on the plane. My suitcase with my clothing was small in comparison.

What an exciting time for both of us. We had 12 students and a fairly large room to create our prints. The students were mothers who had their children in many of the center's programs. By giving them the opportunity to design and create their works of art, we hoped that they would continue on after we left.

Motivated by their new printing skills, the students were given the opportunity to earn money by selling their art.

I traveled to South Africa four times over many years, and now the students are able to continue on their own. I absolutely loved the experience of teaching them!

Published on February 15th, 2018