Peter Clarke: Inspiring the world from the township

The art world continues to mourn

The wounds are still fresh. The art world continues to mourn the passing of Peter Clarke, the great painter, poet and writer who passed away earlier this year. Clarke inspired people around the globe from his township home in Ocean View. He and his family were forcibly moved to this place with the cruel name, far away from the seaside, in the 1960s under the Group Areas Act.

Clarke drew inspiration from his community as he depicted the social and political experiences of South Africans under apartheid. A largely self-taught artist, he captured the struggles and successes of his community, those who survived under difficult circumstances. He was dignified and humble.

Internationally renowned artist but also a friend, uncle and brother whose art and life became entwined with the people he knew and loved: Veteran poet James Matthews, photographer George Hallett, local artist Lionel Davis… to name but a few. His memory lives on through his work but for many it’s the personal anecdotes that tell the real story of the man behind the paintings. One account, particularly moving, has been written by Nina Callaghan on the Remembering Peter Clarke Facebook page, a young woman who grew up surrounded by these legends.

Peter Clarke. Coming and going (1960). Oil. 511 cm x 409 cm. Private collection.

Peter Clarke. Coming and going (1960). Oil. 511 cm x 409 cm. Private collection.

A Writer Remembers

“We only went to Ocean View to visit one person really, Uncle Peter and sometimes Aunty Gladys. It was so far we had to make a day of it. Sometimes we’d go on the way to camp at Soetwater. Other times the rest of the poetry spewing, wine swigging comrades would also be there, outdoing each other with unsteady pregnant pauses, twisted verses and pained love all decked out in lots of leather, corduroys and polo necks. Uncle Peter sometimes wore a silk cravat.

On those days, when Aunty Gladys’ yard was full I’d get anxious before the party even started because I knew we’d leave with my mother furious, at my father for drinking too much, or because of some or other untoward comment from James or Aubrey who audaciously wanted a lift back home to Athlone – in our car.

Uncle Peter would snigger, his shoulders shaking, stroke his bok baard, lift his one eyebrow just so, his top lip all pointy and smiling at the same time and in his best English accent say, “Oh come on chaps.” I remember his house smelling of pepper. Not the kind that made you sneeze, but something rich and spicy and tonal.

The best visits were when we’d come away with presents. Silver and perlemoen shell earrings for my mother that she kept in a dark wooden jewelry box uncle Peter also made. My favourites were the candles. I’d watch the blue blocks melt into orange and I’d burn them rarely and just for me at the dining room table. They were like paintings come to life,”

Son of A Domestic Worker

Peter Clarke at Paaden Kloof.

Peter Clarke at Paaden Kloof.

Born 2 June, 1929, Clarke grew up in Cardiff Road, Simon’s Town. His mother was a domestic worker, and his father worked as a labourer in the dockyard. Both his parents were avid readers, and instilled in Clarke a love for literature. During the forced removals under the Group Areas Act of the 1950s and 60s many families were evicted from the seaside, naval base town and dumped in Ocean View, including Clarke’s.

His career as a poet and artist exceeds six decades. His visual work was influenced by a wide variety of artists and movements, from Gerard Sekoto to Picasso. From the vibrancy of the African-American artists of the Harlem Renaissance to the flourishes of Japanese woodcuts or the intensity of Mexican muralists.

Clarke attended art classes in Woodstock, and worked as a store assistant at the Cape Town dockyard before devoting himself to his art. His first exhibition was held in 1957 and arranged by his life-long friend, the iconic poet and writer James Matthews:

“When Peter started out as a young artist, galleries refused to accept his work. I was a journalist working at Golden City Post and without the headquarters in Joburg knowing about it, I turned the newsroom into an art gallery. That was Peter’s first exhibition. And of course he progressed,” said Matthews.

“Yes, he and James Matthews were always together,” said photographer George Hallett. “One day I went by and I asked him, ‘What are you cooking?’ and he said to me ‘The Clarkes never cook, they create.’ That kind of sophistication you rarely find with ordinary people”.

While best known as a printmaker, Clarke is also highly regarded for his linocut and woodblock techniques. With a doctorate in literature, words played an important role in his visual work. However, his commitment to the arts stretched far beyond his paintings and writing. He would hold workshops with local youth, arrange exhibitions and engage with aspiring artists at any opportunity.

“We need to remember Peter, especially in the black community, because today we have very few role models. Gangsterism has taken over in so many places but there is a need for us to have those role models. We need to uplift our community,” said Lionel Davis, a loyal friend and artist who still trains young aspiring artists all over South Africa.

Listening To Distant Thunder (1970). Oil and sand on board. Johannesburg Art Gallery

Listening To Distant Thunder (1970). Oil and sand on board. Johannesburg Art Gallery

A Very Important Man

Despite being an internationally praised artist, Clarke remained in his matchbox, semi-detached home in Ocean View. This is where he found his inspiration. His community was his art. One of his works Coming and Going (1960) portrays the trauma of the forced removals. Callaghan describes her memories:

I never used to think his paintings were that special. They seemed to be everywhere and a constant feature of my childhood, crowded on the short walls of 18a Thornton Road. The trees in them were so desolate, the men were usually drinking and there always seemed to be a terrible wind that pushed people about. They made my four-year-old self sad. But my dad was always so proud of them, and boasted every time someone new came to visit, ‘Done by my friend, (pause) (sway) Peter Clarke,’ the last consonant sharp and posh, like he was a very important man.

I didn’t think they were back then, Uncle Peter, George Hallet, James Matthews. They always made my mother cross and talked long into the night about the fucking bastards and a revolution. Now they’re respected elders, their treasures of love and struggle curating a chapter in history.

In 2005, Clarke was awarded the Order of Ikhamanga, by former President Thabo Mbeki and in 2010 he was presented with a lifetime achievement award. He exhibited locally and internationally including Dakar, London, Paris and Barbados.

Peter Hands by George Hallett

Peter Hands by George Hallett