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Wind Blowing on the Cape Flats

Peter Clarke at Iniva (Institute of International Visual Arts)

By Amy Halliday
16 January - 19 March. 0 Comment(s)
Any which way but here (Dyptich) - detail

Peter Clarke
Any which way but here (Dyptich) - detail, 1988. Mixed Media on Paper 70 x 50cm.

‘About time’ reads the subtitle of a torn fragment in Peter Clarke’s mixed-media collage The Contributors (1986). Upon closer inspection, it turns out to be an unassuming invitation to an art exhibition to be opened by the artist. Another fragment announces David Goldblatt as the guest speaker for an exhibition of ‘Black South African Photographers’. These and other revealing scraps – like the ochre and burnt umbers of rock art forms - which seem to emerge from within the rusty hues of the painted wall to which they are pasted – are overlaid with a roll-call of names: Mancoba, Legae, Mbatha, Sedumedi, Mgudlandlu, Cole…

Many of these names, perhaps barely recognised by most in 1986, have become more prominent in the last two decades, as a result of individual and institutional efforts to re-evaluate and redress South Africa’s exclusionary canon. From the landmark exhibition ‘The Neglected Tradition’ at JAG (1988-9) to IZIKO’s recent attention to the legacy of the Community Arts Project (CAP), much progress has been made, though many of the names on Clarke’s register remain largely forgotten or unknown.

‘About time’ is also the tenor of the Clarke retrospective, ‘Wind Blowing on the Cape Flats’, at London’s Institute for International Visual Arts. Speaking at the press event, the 83-year-old artist nods his head in agreement: ‘It’s been a long time coming! ’ But if due recognition has been belated for Clarke, whose career spans six decades of painting, printmaking and poetry, it has recently arrived by the bucketful. In 2005, Clarke was awarded the President’s Order of Ikhamanga, in 2010 the Arts and Culture Lifetime Achievement award.  From 2005 to 2008, Philippa Hobbs and Elizabeth Rankin worked on the landmark scholarly text Listening to Distant Thunder: The Art of Peter Clarke, which would inform both the artist’s first solo exhibition in South Africa at the Standard Bank Gallery, and the SANG retrospective in 2011.

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Guy Tillim Tshililo (right) and her friends share a one-roomed apartment in Cape Agulhas Esselen Street, Hillbrow

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Coming and Going

Peter Clarke
Coming and Going
1960
oil

Riaison Naidoo, director of SANG, for whom Clarke ‘is an artist very close to my heart’ also included his work at the 10th Dakar Biennial last year. In the small guidebook accompanying the INIVA exhibition, Naidoo shares an anecdote of contemporary artist Lerato Shadi, also at Dak’Art, who exclaimed that she stands on the shoulders of giants like Berni Searle, who in turn stood on the shoulders of artists like Peter Clarke, who paved the way for black artists in South Africa. Incredibly, it was the first time Shadi had encountered Clarke’s work, which attests to his previous lack of recognition in South Africa. And it was also at Dak’Art that Tessa Jackson of INIVA, co-curator of the London retrospective with Naidoo, came across Clarke’s work for the first time.

And it is very much this “first-timers’”curatorial frame that is imposed on the exhibition. This is to say that ‘Wind blowing on the Cape Flats’ provides a straightforward, often overtly didactic survey of the artist’s work, organised into largely chronological categories. Though such an approach is understandable, and resonates with INIVA’s aims, at times it feels reductive. Surely there are more evocative ways to conceptually frame Fisherwoman with Child (1960), a Picasso-esque take on a Simonstown scene, or the Goddess of Sustenance (1958), which speaks of a black South African artist encountering ‘tribal’ sculpture by way of European modernism (an inversion of Picasso’s famed Trocadero episode) than subsuming them in the vagaries of  ‘Learning from Others’.

Gaiety

Peter Clarke
Gaiety
1969
linocut in colour

Incisive vignettes of ‘Daily Life’ – the staunch Washerwoman (1960) carrying laundry on her head, Three Chommies (1967) standing side by side – provide a counterpoint to the strongly rhetorical Ghetto Fences series of the 1970s to early ’90s. These works employ the visual conceit of the painted wall as the ground for multiple voices of dissent – torn newspaper fragments, scrawled graffiti, literary excerpts echoing through the ages – and invoke the physical and social strictures of apartheid.

One of the curatorial decisions that is most successful is the sourcing of multiple works on the same subject in different media, demonstrating the artist’s formal experimentation and versatility. Gaiety – a bucolic scene of children dancing in a ring – registers entirely differently in the fluid transparency of watercolour to the crisp edges and strong tones of a linoprint. Coming and Going, a haunting image in which plants and people alike cast long shadows in the harsh sun, appears as an oil in 1960, an etching and drypoint in 1961, and a perspex engraving in 1962. Here we see the medium itself as a protagonist in shaping the possibilities of form and mood, what Michael Baxandall, in Limewood Sculptors of Renaissance Italy, referred to as the medium’s inherent character or ‘chiromancy’. Intriguingly, the oil, although the earliest of the three, is structured through a planar arrangement of space, strong contrasts of light and dark, and a focus on linearity. Here Clarke reflects the influence that the design principles underlying printmaking had on his work in general.

Unknown Youth, Soweto, 1976

Peter Clarke
Unknown Youth, Soweto, 1976

mixed-media

image courtesy of Stevenson gallery

The upstairs room of the exhibition is freed from the didactic frame which introduces the artist in the lower section, and as such provides more room for serendipity. Here, photographs by George Hallet – a long-time friend of the artist – and glass cases full of sketchbooks, poetry, book illustrations and newspaper clippings, provide evocative glimpses into other aspects of the artist’s life and practice. The first work one encounters is a diptych from the Ghetto Fences series, Trojan Horse (1990), which includes multiple references to the Soweto Uprising of June ’76. Over a torn reproduction of the iconic Hector Pieterson photograph, collaged text fragments appear like a ransom note to history: ‘O Death, where is thy / STORYLINE?’

This tiny fragment brings the exhibition together: Clarke’s abiding belief in, and pursuit of, narrative – not in the sense of an easy or singular story of the past, but as a forging of meaningful connections between people and places, events and experiences – is what makes his work so powerful. Fourteen years later, in Unknown Youth, Soweto (2004), from the artist’s more recent Fanfare series, the concertinaed arc of the same image is underscored by Clarke’s musings about the figure of the unknown boy who carries Pieterson’s body: ‘In retrospect there will be those who will wonder not only about Hector Pieterson and his sister Antoinette, but also about you. ’ 

Speaking about his choice of characters for the Fanfare works, Clarke explains:

In this series I bring characters onto the stage of my mental theatre. I had the idea of designing a fan to suggest each particular individual, and under the fans designed for them, they put in brief appearances…Certain characters are always there even though they have taken back seats… as certain characters came to mind, when they - you could say - stood up and stepped forward, they engaged my interest.

The same could be said of the artist himself: Peter Clarke may long have been relegated to the background of South African art history, but it is clearly about time he took centre stage.