Peter Clarke works across a broad spectrum of media. But he also has a literary side as an internationally acclaimed writer and poet. Of these three roles, he jokes:
“Had I been triplets, it would have made it much easier because each could have his own job. There are times when I go through a writing phase and there are times for phases of picture-making but there is never a dull moment.” (Ref)
Clarke is well known for his depictions of the social and political experiences of ordinary South Africans.
Although he and his family were forcibly removed from their home in Simon’s Town during the apartheid era, his art is without bitterness. Often humorous, it is rather a scrutiny and celebration of life in all its aspects, and an expression of his ongoing delight in ordinary, everyday experiences. (Ref)
Clarke is best known for his graphic prints, particularly his woodcuts, and more recently he has moved into collage. He also uses leather, glass, found objects and other mixed media to produce his colourful work.
Peter Clarke was born in 1929.Clarke finished his schooling in 1944 and worked as a ship painter in the Simon’s Town dockyard. In 1947, he read an article on Gerard Sekoto, the first South African black artist to be represented in a public collection. Sekoto’s success inspired him to become an artist, and in his early twenties he declared that he would make his living as an artist, which was a highly unusual ambition for a young black South African at the time.
In this Video Peter Clarke discusses October Landscape and talks about his background
Clarke is largely self-taught and has learned much from books and magazines. He did however, receive some informal art tuition, which began in 1947 in District Six where he was taught by the London-born artist , John Coplans. In 1948, these classes moved to the Roland Street Technical College, Cape Town where they were run by pioneering members of the New Group.
With assistance from his life-long friend, James Matthews, Clarke held his first solo exhibition in the newsroom of the newspaper, The Golden City Post, in 1957. At that time he said: ‘Before my exhibition, I was just another coloured man. Our people took it for granted that only whites could do such things. Now they are becoming aware of the fact that we can do these things too; that we are human beings.’
Clarke later worked with Katrina Harries at the Michaelis School of Art , University of Cape Town in 1961, and then spent time at the Rijksakademie van Beeldende Kunsten in Amsterdam and at Atelier Nord in Oslo. (Ref)
Over the last sixty years, Clarke has reflected on his country’s social and political history and is often referred to as the ‘quiet chronicler’. His work constitutes a subtle critique of apartheid and its social consequences as well as more recently, aspects of the ‘new’ South Africa.
Peter Clarke’s art is about people, and in his reflection of humanity and in the contribution he has made to his country’s cultural development, he has become an inspiration to many other artists.Although largely self-taught, Clarke was encouraged by taking informal art classes and studying European masters that he saw reproduced in books – including Picasso, and the South African modernist Gerard Sekoto (the first black artist to be represented in a South African public collection). Witty, sharp, poignant, aesthetically memorable, Clarke’s work provides an extraordinary context for discussion of his country as it prepares to celebrate 20 years since the momentous elections that brought Nelson Mandela to President.
His early pieces, reflect the social disruption of the Cape Flats. Works from the late 1960s refer to the trauma of forced removals from Simon’s Town, and the ambitious paintings he began making during his trips to America, Norway and France in the 1970s.
Clarke works from his home in Ocean View, Cape Town. He has never had his own studio and this fact impacts upon his work. Printmaking can be awkward if not impossible in a small space and this restriction has helped trigger Clarke’s recent move to alternative media.
The confines of home have also impacted on the scale of his work. Small artworks are more practical and Clarke says his work has therefore tended to be smaller. He says: “I do make tiny prints at home but one has to improvise terribly and [working from home] does have an impact on size and the amount of prints you can produce.”
Clarke works consistently, interspersed with other activities, in a natural rhythm that oscillates between writing and art making. “I work when the idea strikes. I don’t have a regime; while I work the ideas come. I’m not interested in waiting around for the muse,” he says.
Although his work has naturally evolved over time, Clarke says its latest twist towards collage heralds a more abrupt and obvious change. He says:
“Up to a certain time, I worked in a narrative manner. I had things to say and it was also expected of black artists to make statements about the state of affairs in the country. But it was a phase and I felt at the time that I also wanted to produce artwork without it necessarily making a statement about anything in particular.”
“After 1994, I started feeling that one must also explore other things beyond the statement. I felt it was a time for liberation, a renaissance as being felt [in South Africa] in any case. So I gave free reign to working with various kinds of material like coloured paper, cloths, labels and whatever I also became aware at this time of a lot of scrap material – like junk mail. Some of it is so colourful. I realized I could use it as material.
“South Africa is a very inspiring place. I am very much interested in people. If I decided only to work in a figurative way, there would be no end to what I want to say about people. People here are more involved with each other. The climate has a lot to do with it. And the variety of people – the physical variety – is very exciting in fact and the way people interact or not. I used to think of South Africa as a mad house but a mad house is far more interesting, really. Had I lived in Europe, my art would have been completely different and probably not at all figurative.
“My earliest influences were the Mexican artists of the 1930s, 40s and 50s and the German Expressionists. I have also been very interested in Japanese art. It has a very attractive style. In the early 1940s and 50s, I also began thinking about what an art teacher [at school] had said. And I took evening classes at St Phillips in District Six where I came into contact with others involved in that space. The interaction led to exploration through books and exhibitions in Cape Town.
He was an extremely versatile artist, a book illustrator, a poet, a gifted writer of short stories, and a book-binder. As a printmaker he has been influenced by the prints of the German Expressionists and by Japanese woodcuts. He also has a strong interest in 20th-century Mexican artists such as Diego Rivera (1886–1957) and David Siqueiros (1896–1974). Their subject matter, with its strong social and political content and their depiction of ordinary people in a bold, naturalistic style, influenced his approach. (Ref)
By the time Clarke painted Ruin, the group areas act had been in effect for 14 years, tearing apart families, destroying homes and communities. In Ruin Clarke reflects the prevailing despair through an abandoned shack and a sollitary crippled figure limping out of the picture plane, increasing the viewer’s discomfort with complimentary colours and a jagged composition. (Ref)
With retrospect, Clarke thinks the theme of space is recurrent through his work. He says: “Physical space, mental space these seem to have been a preoccupation throughout my life.” Even his poetry has reflected this concern, as the words of one of his poems describe: “Sunlight reflected in a distant window”.
In Wind Blowing on the Cape Flats, Clarke portrays a scene from a settlements outside city centre, so typical of Township Art, conceived amid the daily angst and hardship of existence in a deprived society. Clarke gives a view of the Cape Flats with people struggling to move in die wind blowing on the sand dunes. Clarke reflects the harshness of life on the Cape Flats by focussing on the harshness of the weather – the blinding sun and the merciless wind. (Anyone who has experienced the South Easter in the Cape heat , combined with the stinging sand, will understand the extreme discomfort.) The stylized, strongly defined shapes are reminiscent of both Japanese woodcuts and Mexican Expressionism (See Diego Rivera 1886 – 1957) (Ref)
The girl with the bag forms the focal point as she is the biggest shape and is placed in the centre of the painting. The lines of the grass and the shadow of her legs leads the eye to her. Clarke also simplified his shapes; they are generalized shapes and do not show individual features, for example the box-like houses and the ripples of the sand blowing on the dunes become patterns.
This is the third in a series of films of Peter Clarke talking about his work at the Wind Blowing on the Cape Flats exhibition. Here he talks about Winter sun, Amsterdam.
This is the fourth in a series of films of Peter Clarke talking about his work at the Wind Blowing on the Cape Flats exhibition. Here he talks about the works he collectively calls the ‘Ghetto Fence Series’.
Here’s a Video of Peter Clarke discussing Some Pathways to Education lies Between Thorns
“I’ve been interested in space for a very long time, since early childhood in fact. Not only that kind of space, but also the spaces that separate people. The spaces that people have to traverse. In this particular work, what inspired this one was the fact that in South Africa, in the rural areas there’s a great deal of having to walk to school. Often children travel long distances every day. Going to school and traveling back afterwards. When I for instance spent a while in a village called Tesselaarsdal in the earlier part of my career there was one group of children who walked five miles to school in the morning and then walked the five miles back after school. So I was seeking out the difficulties involved in gaining an education. And so the title eventually came to me for this particular one, ‘For Some the Pathway to Education Lies Between Thorns’.”
“This is a lino-cut print. It is a reduction lino-cut print. What I mean by reduction is I draw on the block, cut very carefully. I’ve already decided in my mind that this is going to be a five colour block print…a five colour print…and so I cut the block and I ink for the first stage, print it, then I cut it further, ink it a different colour, printed it and so on, until I’ve completed the block. I’ve completed the block and what will remain over on the block so what has printed the darkest colour here. It is actually a very simple process, but I’ve felt with many adult artists that I’ve spoken to about print making, they haven’t the foggiest idea what I’m talking about until I actually show them how it is done.” (Ref)
The medium of reduction lino cut lends itself towards clear-cut lines creating sharp black outlines which emphasises the sharpness of the thorns, and the sharpness of the foliage in the foreground. The composition has a horizontal emphasis focused on the line of five children walking with purpose through the thorny bush. There is little depth in the artwork with the focus on the horizontal. Even the sky is treated in a decorative manner rather than an attempt to indicate depth.
The artwork is divided into three sections; the sky, the line of children and the thorny bush. The strong horizontal lines are broken up by the sharp but decorative lines of the grasses, plants and thorny bushes, and in the sky by the strong zig-zag lines, broken-up colour and speckled patterned texture.
He uses a limited palette of colours; soft browns, ochres and blue-greys, with splashes of white, which also reflects the harsh conditions of the children.
The figures of the children are simplified and angular, so that they almost appear like African woodcarvings. The African ethnic feel is especially strong in decorative patterning of the girls’ dresses. There are no soft lines which perhaps reflects the harshness of the conditions the children faces in order to receive their education. Even the grasses and the plants in the foreground feels as if they are rather dry and prickly, than soft. Yet, the children seems oblivious to ” the thorns on their path” to education, and the long walk, rather it appears that they are so focused on their goal, nothing else matters.This is emphasized as they are all focusing forward and the lines in the foliage also bends towards the same direction.
The general simplification of forms and decorative use of line helps to give the overall impression that Some Pathways to Education lies Between Thorns, could very well be an illustration for a children’s book, which lends and ironic element to the theme, as many children under Apartheid would not even have access to books.
Peter Clarke’s work shows the hardships and suffering of the coloured
community in Cape Town. The Group Areas Act led to the relocation of many
coloured communities to the Cape Flats in areas such as Atlantis, Ocean
View, etc. These sandy areas were located far from their jobs and led to
displaced communities. In this work a young boy (focal point), is the largest
figure is playing a flute amidst a field of Arum lilies. The three white arum lilies
in the foreground bring sharpness to the front and encircled him. In the
background simple houses are painted of the disadvantaged community.
Aerial perspective is created by the smaller figures Two figures, a dog, a
wagon, and a piece of wood is shown in the background.
Clarke gives dignity to the boy playing the flute – it is as if the music carries
him away from the mundane hardship of his everyday life. There is a strong
awareness of modern international styles in his works which is seen in the
stylisation and simplification of his shapes. The angularity in the shapes
shows an expressionistic influence. Everything is stripped down to basic
shapes without much detail. The colour is subtle, mostly greens, blues and
browns. His clothes form a contrast between the cool blue shirt and warm
yellow shorts. There is a dreamlike atmosphere. Expressionism, hard
outlines, etched shapes/stylized-simplified
Afrika which way? Shows a boy, thorn bushes, birds freed from a cage by the boy, and a wall with graffiti. The names that appear on the wall – Cabral, Luthuli, Kenyatta, Nkrumah and Nyerere. Also written on the wall are the names of the European colonial powers – France, Britain, Belgium and Portugal.
Bibliography and Further Reading
Great SA Art Masters Series – Peter Clark
Peter Clarke introduces For Some the Pathway to Education Lies Between Thorns
Royal African Society
Standard Bank Learner Resources on the Art of Peter Clarke
South African History Online