Peter Clarke: There was always tomorrow

POSTED ON: April 14, 2021 IN ASAI, Candice Allison, On Artists, Word View

By Candice Allison

South Africa is a very inspiring place. I am very much interested in 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.[1]

South African artist, writer, and poet Peter Clarke (1929-2014) lived and worked in Cape Town for most of his life, where he produced a prolific oeuvre of work over almost sixty years. In the quote above, Clarke talked about the inspiration that he drew from South Africa and its people, which informed his work throughout his artistic life. Clarke’s works are part haunting obituary of days long gone and over, and part invaluable social documentation of everyday life in the years during and after apartheid. Racially classified as a ‘coloured’ Clarke’s life was shaped by the systemic events of marginalisation and dehumanisation that took place during the apartheid years. One such defining moment took place in the late 1960’s. Under the Group Areas Act, Simon’s Town, a military harbour southeast of Cape Town where Clarke was born and grew up, was declared a whites-only area. Over a period of about six years, Clarke’s community were forcibly removed from their seaside homes to Ocean View, a ‘coloured’ designated area which ironically had access to neither ocean nor ocean views.[2] Clarke’s family was one of the last to leave Simon’s Town in 1972, by then a deserted and lifeless husk of a once thriving town.

Despite, or perhaps because of his personal experiences, Clarke sought to capture in his work the daily life of communities dispersed across the Western Cape. Through his work he conveyed the nuances of dignity in a time of conflict, and a celebration of life amidst repression, dispossession, and poverty. At the opening of his retrospective exhibition Peter Clarke: Wind Blowing on the Cape Flats at the Institute of International Visual Arts (Iniva) in London, 2013, he stated: “Life in South Africa wasn’t only unpleasant, people also celebrated and did normal things.”[3]

After leaving his job at the dockyard in Simon’s Town to pursue a career as an artist, Clarke supplemented his income with odd jobs and creative writing. His first piece was published in Drum in 1951. Contrast, a literary magazine, also published his writing. In an interview with Hans Ulrich Obrist, Clarke described how “… in between painting I would write and so there was this kind of outlet for my seemingly inexhaustible energies. I couldn’t help working. I was possessed. I still am.”[4] Recognising what Obrist described as the ‘parallel realities’ of Clarke’s work – as painter, writer, illustrator, and print maker — this essay will trace some of the themes and symbolism which Clarke repeatedly returned to in his work. Drawing on various interviews and videos, the artist’s voice is woven into this explorative text. As a homage to Clarke who regularly mixed the literary with his artworks, the starting point for grasping the multiple layers of his work is found in an auto-biographical short story Clarke wrote, Eleven o’clock: the wagons, the shore, which won a prize in 1958 in an Encounter short story competition and was subsequently read on BBC radio in England.[5] The story encapsulates some of the ideas that would concern Clarke throughout his life, offering possible clues into the significance of the symbols and imagery which Clarke repeatedly included in his works.

In the story, Clarke reminisces about his years growing up in Simon’s Town. During the eleven o’clock school break, he and a gang of friends would run to a gravelled lot near the shore where old Albertyn, who ran a horse and cart business in town, would dispose of his broken carriages. Much like his visual artworks, throughout the story Clarke deftly juxtaposes the realities of hardship with moments of carefree abandon. He simultaneously makes the reader aware of the children’s poverty, and the innocent joy they find in eating ‘tuppeny’ sandwiches, laughing at the antics of seagulls, or giving in to the magic of childhood imagination.

It quickly becomes evident Clarke has fond memories of his childhood. This is mirrored in many of his artworks which demonstrate an enchantment with the frivolous simplicity of youth. He regularly depicts boys playing or engaging in carefree activities, as can be seen in works such as Before the Storm (aka Boys Running) (1961) or Football Players by Midnight (2012), as well as other works which will be discussed in more detail in this essay. In other works, Clarke reflects on the serious disadvantages faced by children of colour growing up under apartheid South Africa, especially in trying to gain an education. In the first of six short films produced by Iniva for his retrospective in London, Clarke talks about his work For Some the Pathway to Education Lies Between Thorns (1994):  

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.[6]

In the linocut print, the children determinedly walk in single file, carrying books on their heads or in backpacks. There is no banter or play — energy needs to be conserved. The struggle of the journey is symbolised by a field of sharp impenetrable thorns in the foreground, formally occupying a third of the picture frame.

For Some the Pathway to Education Lies Between Thorns, 1994. Linocut print. (Collection: The artist’s estate, Photo: Warren Nelson).

Early in the short story, Clarke describes the delineation of different spaces: the schoolyard, rows of small houses, Villa Zain with its large garden and impressive palm tree, an open gravel lot, and the property of old Albertyn set apart from the town on the edge of the shore, surrounded by a big garden and tall trees. In a prophetic sentence, Clarke describes the eventual fate of old Albertyn’s wagons. After he had no further use for them, “he had them dumped on the foreshore where they were left to the mercy of time and the elements, until they became so battered that they just fell apart through utter weariness from the unevenness of the battle.”[7] The image of an abandoned carriage is one of the more subtle, overlooked symbols which appears in the desolate background of several works like Coming and Going (1960), The Washerwoman (1960), and Flute music (1960). In Flute music, a young boy faces us, deeply focused on playing his flute. Typical of Clarke’s aesthetic, the boy’s angular frame fills the picture plane. His bright coloured clothing and the cheerful lilies at his feet belie the drab scene of characterless, rudimentary houses behind him. A barefoot man carries a parcel under one arm, a woman with a baby strapped to her back carries a load on her head, and a skinny dog lurks in the long shadow cast by the skeletal frame of a discarded wagon. With hindsight, we can draw a comparison between the abandoned, battered wagons in Clarke’s story with the unevenness of the battle for entire communities like that of Simon’s Town who would be relocated and dumped elsewhere. In his visual artworks, the carriages serve as the link between the boy’s present circumstance and the past. In Flute music, a glimmer of hope rests in the boy and his ability to detach himself from the scene behind him, carrying himself away with the tune of his musical instrument. Similarly, Clarke carries the reader along with tumultuous emotions as the story swings back and forth between hope and sorrow, ending with a reflection on how the passing of time eventually erases the wagons beneath the reclaimed land of the new foreshore until “only the sea and the wind remain”.[8]

Boy with Flute (aka ‘Flute Music’), 1960. Oil on canvas. (Source: Stephan Welz & Co.)

In the next paragraph, Clarke describes in more detail the property of old Albertyn, who we assume to most likely be a white man because of his apparent wealth, contrasting the sprawling and lush garden with the tattered remains of the carriage graveyard. The garden is hidden from view by fences, and only those willing to wait along its boundary might have the chance to catch the scent of fragrant flowers carried on ocean winds beyond the property perimeter. Walls and fences feature prominently in many of Clarke’s works, formally dominating his compositions and obscuring from the viewer what lies on the other side.[9] In another video interview produced by Iniva, Clarke talked about Actors Looking at a Human Comedy (1981), a mixed media collage which forms part of the Ghetto Fences series produced in the 1980s. Referring to the wall which stretches across the triptych, he stated “the wall, as far as I am concerned, played a very strong role, it is actually representing the separation of people in South Africa.”[10]

Mario Pissarra has noted that Clarke’s Ghetto Fences series are “a largely overlooked, even maligned, body of works, and tend to be seen as reflecting his interest in township graffiti. However, they go beyond this, with the walls depicted being not only reminders of physical barriers, but also visualisations of psychological barriers” which convey Clarke’s deep fascination with “an acute and sustained reflection on questions of proximity and distance, on inclusion and exclusion, on belonging and not.” [11]

In another work, The Fence (1960), three boys comically scale a fence that fills a full third of the picture plane, once again demonstrating Clarke’s penchant for this formal arrangement. One of the boys confidently stands like an intrepid explorer with one leg on top of the fence, pointing towards the sliver of blue sky visible to the viewer. In the foreground, in contrast to the light-hearted play of the others, a fourth boy stands with his back to the fence, his gaze downcast. Also evident in The Fence is a dog, another recurrent symbol in Clarke’s work, typically as companions of youths,[12] but they also inferred more sinister things, like police activity.[13] The South African Police (SAP) functioned as the security arm for the apartheid government and was known for its brutal and corrupt nature when confronting persons of colour. In The Fence, the dog appears to be prowling or patrolling the perimeter, suggesting that despite the frivolous scene taking place on the wall, on the ground below there is a sense of unease.

The Fence, 1960. Gouache on paper. (Source: Strauss & Co.)

As Clarke’s story continues, he describes the antics of the seagulls diving and fighting in the ocean for tasty morsels. He calls the birds ‘skollyboys’, a derogatory word used to describe someone who is trash, or up to no good. And yet, Clarke and his gang of friends try to discern individual birds among the flock, naming them in an effort to recognise, and humanise, the birds that scavenge for scraps yet have the freedom to nonchalantly fly away whenever they choose. As they bid farewell to the birds, he reminisces “[T]hen there was always tomorrow and the bell…”, another prophetic suggestion that in Simon’s Town, tomorrow would not always be guaranteed.

In an interview with Yvette Mutumba and Ciraj Rassool just a few weeks before Clarke passed away, he referred to one possible reading of the birds that he so often depicted in his work:

There are times when you look at works of mine and it’s got nothing to do with politics or anything, but there are birds flying or something like that. That’s related to my travels, since when you travel you look at things, and to look at things is to gain knowledge. When I come back, I especially like to engage with other, younger, artists, as it’s also all about sharing knowledge.[14]

In a work like The Blue Bird (1959), Clarke depicted a bright blue bird perched on the hand of a boy leaning on one crutch, listening intently as the bird sings to him. The idea that the bird could be ‘sharing knowledge’ with the boy seems quite plausible. It is unclear whether the boy is injured or physically disabled — is the bird telling him about his travels, of the many places he has been to and what he has seen, places the boy can only dream of visiting himself? Or is it teaching the boy a new song? Often self-referential in his work, The Blue Bird was completed at a time when Clarke was still developing his skills as an artist, and shortly before he embarked on a journey to work with Katrina Harries at the Michaelis School of Art, University of Cape Town.[15]

The Blue Bird, 1959. Oil on board. (Collection: Bruce Campbell Smith).

Homage to the Poet Langston Hughes (circa 1994) is a drawing on a woodcut depicting a hand releasing a bird flying to freedom, which Clarke designed for the opening exhibition of the District Six Museum in 1994. The linocut was later reproduced as a four-colour lithograph for his exhibition at Iniva in 2013. It depicts an outstretched single hand, reaching towards a dove. The image was inspired by a couplet by African American poet, Langston Hughes:

Hold fast to dreams, for if dreams die
Life is a broken winged bird, that cannot fly

While Clarke never met Hughes, they regularly corresponded in the 1950s and 60s after Hughes judged a short story competition organised by Drum for which Clarke won first prize.[16] Speaking about the work, Clarke stated, “for me, it was such a simple but strong message, guidance in fact, advice for the would-be writer. Not to give up hope before actually getting to some point at all.”[17]

 Homage to the Poet Langston Hughes, 2012. Lithograph print. (Source: Iniva).

It is interesting to note, as Pissarra points out, that while it has been widely documented that Clarke was influenced by German Expressionism, Mexican muralists and Japanese woodcuts, less is known about his interest in African American artists, especially those influenced by the Harlem Renaissance movement (originally known as the ‘New Negro Movement’), which sought to celebrate African American culture in all its facets in 1920s and 1930s Harlem, New York. Pissarra lists Romare Bearden, Jacob Lawrence and Charles Alston as artists whose work Clarke drew inspiration from. It is also significant that what Clarke shared with Hughes and many of the African American artists listed by Pissarra, was a Pan Africanist desire to revive historical narratives and cultural connections with the wider African continent. Classified by the Apartheid government as ‘not white’ yet ‘not black’ either, Clarke nevertheless self-identified as African, thereby “inserting himself into the evolving discourse of modern African art during the 1960s”.[18]

By the late 1970s, however, Clarke’s work had become increasingly concerned with the political, and his interest in Pan Africanism more overt. In a collage work titled Afrika Which Way (1978), Clarke references some of Africa’s liberation leaders, including Amílcar Cabral, Kwame Nkrumah, Jomo Kenyatta and Julius Nyerere, while also critiquing the Cold War’s proxy wars that were being fought in southern Africa. In the foreground of the work, a pair of white doves fly above a young man holding a bird cage. Referring to the possible double meaning of the birds, Pawson asked, “have they just been released, or is he about to trap them?”[19]

In another work, the woodcut print This is a Hard World (1977), the use of birds in the work also adds an element of ambiguity to their reading. A young boy looks up at two seagulls flying above him. The title alludes to the fact that the boy faces difficulties in his life that he cannot fly away from like the birds above. While the birds may be free, used in this context their freedom is a stark reminder that the boy is trapped in a hard world. Typical of Clarke’s style, however, a glimmer of hope exists — the boy’s mouth is open and could be a smile on his upturned face. Perhaps the birds serve as inspiration for him to not give up hope for his own freedom to fly away.

In the final paragraphs of Clarke’s short story, as the sound of the ringing school bell ending the 11 o’clock break brings the boys sharply out of their childlike reverie and running back to class, he describes a flurry of activity. From thrashing rains and enveloping mists in winter to the sprouting of daisies and butterflies in spring. The fishermen whose hands bleed from untangling fishing line, the boats used to bring in hauls of snoek later salted and dried in the sun. Exploring rock pools on hot sunny days, catching small fish that would later be fried in a pan for dinner. As Clarke describes the bay in such vivid and loving detail, we are able to comprehend why the shorelines of the Cape Peninsula figure so strongly in his early work. The sadness and trauma Clarke must have felt at leaving this beloved part of his life behind is encapsulated in his response to a question about whether he would ever return to Simon’s Town:

I would not like to go back to Simon’s Town because you can’t go back to the past. The thing about going back to the past is that all those elements that made up your life, the neighbours, the people you knew, the smells of supper coming from different houses, the sounds of voices of people living around and so on, all those familiar things are not there any longer.[20] 

Even though Clarke’s story is produced in 1958, many years before his family would be forced to relocate, the closing chapter reads as if it could have been written by Clarke many years later, from his home in Ocean View when he describes how

Those were far, far days and now it is all over. Time has taken many hours and changed them into the past. Bare-footed schoolboys grew up and became men and the wagons disappeared beneath the reclaimed land of a new fore-shore. Only the sea and the wind remain. Now when the sea roars and the wind rises up off the water, and, dashing through the corners of old Albertyn’s garden makes every plant and tree rejoice, then my heart goes back to those far-off eleven o’clock days of the wagons and the sea.[21]

For the duration of his life after leaving Simon’s Town, Clarke chose to remain in Ocean View, when many other artists of his generation were leaving South Africa as exiles. He produced small works necessitated by the constraints of the small house he lived in. He participated in the daily life of his community and contributed towards social upliftment by running art classes for children and mentoring younger artists. He was a member of the arts group Vakalisa in the 1980s, which sought to develop cultural activities in deprived communities in the Western Cape.[22] As an artist, Clarke reflected the world around him — as he lived it, and as he saw it; not as romanticised or ghettoised, but as it was. A place where women carrying fresh cut flowers on their head to earn a small daily income at the market might stop to chat about the news, politics, or other neighbours. A place where a boy might listen to the song of a bird or teach himself to play a musical instrument, dreaming of one day being a famous jazz musician. A place where children might play soccer under the moonlight, each imagining themselves scoring a goal in front of the crowds at the World Cup.[23] A place where poverty seeps into the fabric of reality, dirtying the hues of red, orange, burnt umber, yellow ochre, and blue which characterised Clarke’s pallet. A place where loneliness stretches out like tall shadows of barren trees across dusty planes.

Towards the end of his life, Clarke’s experimentation with abstraction using the medium of collage was given more attention when Stevenson gallery in Cape Town hosted two exhibitions of his work: Fanfare (2012-2013), and Just Paper and Glue (2013). In the former, Clarke married his two great passions by incorporating prose into the works. Using paint, pencil and scraps found in his mail, the abstract collages he produced for both exhibitions — the latter taking the form of concertina artists’ books — illustrate Clarke’s capacity for letting go of the figurative in favour of more playful experiments with colour, shape, and form. Speaking about the books, Clarke said: “The idea is just to have fun — like picture books for children, which take them into another world. These are meant to act in the same way. It’s just the artist in [his] old age indulging in fun and games.”[24] While Clarke produced many sombre works throughout his career, it is his ability to take the viewer into other worlds, or to express the human desire to just ‘have fun’ in spite of the drudgery of daily life that makes his work so affective.

Candice Allison is a curator, writer, and researcher based in Johannesburg. She is currently Director of the Bag Factory, and is a PhD candidate in the History Department at University of the Western Cape where she is researching curatorial and museum ethics in post-apartheid South Africa.


Notes

[1] Quoted from Peter Clarke’s artist statement. Kim Gurney, “Peter Clarke”, Artthrob, (2003) Available: https://artthrob.co.za/03sept/artbio.html. Accessed: 30 January 2021.

[2] Albert Thomas, “Twenty-five Years Later: The Forced Removals of the Coloured People from Simon’s Town: An interview with William Kindo”, African studies (vol.60, no 1, 2001):25-37.

[3] Laura Pawson, “Peter Clarke”, in Frieze (issue 154, 2013). Available: https://www.frieze.com/article/peter-clarke. Accessed: 13 February 2021.

[4] Sophie Perryer (ed), “Peter Clarke interviewed by Hans Ulrich Obrist”, Peter Clarke: Just paper and glue. (Stevenson: Cape Town, 2013)

[5] Peter Clarke, “Eleven O’clock: The wagons, the shore”, The New African, (vol  1 no10, 1962): 8-9. Available: https://disa.ukzn.ac.za/sites/default/files/pdf_files/nafv1n10.oct62_6.pdf. Accessed: 13 February 2021.

[6] This is the first video in a series of six videos produced by Iniva for the exhibition Peter Clarke: Wind blowing on the Cape Flats, 16 Jan-09 Mar 2013. Available:https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sUOjys0cIlU. Accessed: 13 February 2021.

[7] Clarke, “Eleven O’clock”, 8.

[8] Clarke, “Eleven O’clock”, 9.

[9] Notes accompanying Lot 545 Peter Clarke, The Fence, 1960. Strauss & Co. Fine Art Auctioneers ‘Important South African & International Art, Decorative Arts & Jewellery’ auction, Cape Town, 6 Mar 2017. Available: https://www.straussart.co.za/auctions/lot/6-mar-2017/545. Accessed: 7 February 2021.

[10] This is the fourth in a series of six videos produced by Iniva for the exhibition Peter Clarke: Wind blowing on the Cape Flats, 16 Jan-09 Mar 2013. Available: https://youtu.be/GpEmpnAcd5g. Accessed: 13 February 2021.

[11] Mario Pissarra, “Some Thoughts on Peter Clarke”, ASAI (2014). Available: https://asai.co.za/some-thoughts-peter-clarke-1/. Accessed: 20 February 2021.

[12] Notes accompanying Lot 545, Peter Clarke, The Fence, 1960. Strauss & Co. Fine Art Auctioneers.

[13] Hein Willemse, More than Brothers: Peter Clarke and James Matthews at Seventy (Cape Town: Kwela Books, 2000), 76.

[14] Yvette Mutumba and Ciraj Rassool, ‘It’s All About Sharing Knowledge’, Contemporary And (2016). Available: https://contemporaryand.com/magazines/its-all-about-sharing-knowledge/. Accessed: 30 January 2021.

[15] Emile Maurice, “The Art of Peter Clarke”, Africa is a Country (2014). Available: https://africasacountry.com/2014/05/the-work-of-the-late-artist-peter-clarke. Accessed: 7 February 2021.

[16] Pissarra, “Some Thoughts on Peter Clarke”. See also Sean O’Toole, “Peter Clarke: The known and unknown”, Contemporary And (2014). Available: https://contemporaryand.com/fr/magazines/the-known-and-unknown-peter-clarke/. Accessed: 7 February 2021

[17] This is the sixth in a series of six videos produced by Iniva for the exhibition Peter Clarke: Wind blowing on the Cape Flats, 16 Jan-09 Mar 2013. Available: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sufYfhcfX0w. Accessed: 13 February 2021.

[18] Pissarra, “Some Thoughts on Peter Clarke”.

[19] Pawson, “Peter Clarke”.

[20] This quote is included in the page for Peter Clarke in the online resource South African History Online. Available: https://www.sahistory.org.za/people/peter-clarke. Accessed: 30 January 2021.

[21] Clarke, “Eleven O’clock”’, 9.

[22] Maurice, “The Art of Peter Clarke”.

[23] The 2010 FIFA World Cup was hosted by South Africa.

[24] Stevenson, “Peter Clarke: Just paper and glue”. Press release (2013). Available: http://archive.stevenson.info/exhibitions/clarke/index2013.html. Accessed: 13 February 2021.


Share