From Simon’s Town to London Town: Peter Clarke’s Wind Blowing on the Cape Flats

Peter Clarke has the appearance of a retired seaman, and the same wit and sharp observation reflected in many of his paintings, currently on display as part of an exhibition at Rivington Place, London. Clarke, 82, is part of the generations of South Africans whose youthful world and ambitions were circumscribed by the depredations of Apartheid South Africa’s racial reclassification and forced relocations.

Simon’s Town, Clarke’s birthplace, is located on the coast close to Cape Town and is home to the South African Navy. It was reclassified a ‘white area’ under the Apartheid era Group Areas Act and all its coloured and black residents were forcibly removed. He describes the town, bereft of its former community, and populated by wealthy residents and holidaymakers from Europe as, “a sad theatre” and “a place of ghosts” where “people”, as Clarke says, in the warm cadence of his voice “look at Peter Clarke like a stranger or an intruder but then ignore him.”

“It’s changed. I don’t belong to it any longer. I feel like a ghost when I walk in the street because I see all these people walking there; lots of people these days…I don’t recognise them. And they don’t see me at all – they don’t know who I am and they don’t care either.”

Despite its obvious emotional importance, Clarke describes coming home to the town, as like “coming home to his mother” – Simon’s Town barely figures in a career that has spanned over 40 years, and appears in only four of the works shown in the current exhibition at Rivington Place.

Peter Clarke Any which way but here 1988 Diptych Mixed Media on Paper, 70 x 50cm Copyright the artist, courtesy of private collection

[Peter Clarke – Any which way but here 1988, Diptych Mixed Media on Paper, 70 x 50cm, Copyright the artist, courtesy of private collection]

The exhibition “Wind Blowing on the Cape Flats” is a collaboration between INIVA arts and the South African National Gallery, curated by INIVA’s director, Tessa Jackson and the South African National Gallery’s Art Collections Director, Riason Naidoo. It is Clarke’s first major solo show in the UK though Clarke is not a stranger to London or other global cities; he has exhibited frequently and travelled out for many international exhibitions, although his work has perhaps, until now, missed the international acclaim it may have garnered were it not for the cultural and economic restrictions imposed by and on Apartheid South Africa.

Despite the attractions of exile, Clarke says he never countenanced leaving South Africa, except for short trips to learn more as an artist and writer. “I didn’t feel I wanted to go away from South Africa permanently…I felt my business was being in South Africa…that I had every right to be in South Africa”.

Even though he has been closely wedded to the South African arts scene, Clarke’s work takes in a lot of influences. Some of these are ostentatiously evident in his work, such as the influence of Mexican artists like Kahlo and Rivera – these being obvious references for a socially engaged artist. As an artist he has gained a reputation as “the quiet chronicler of South Africa”, but he says having a large solo show outside of South Africa is “a wonderful feeling, and an acknowledgement of his existence as an artist, a South African and a human being”.

The show reflects a vibrant career, one that has influenced a generation of rising South African artists. Clarke says he’s keen to work with younger artists, as he believes there isn’t enough interaction between them and his generation of artists. His most recent work certainly displays playfulness mostly absent from his earlier output. His fan series of collages and word portraits playfully reflect on different aspects of his experience, including the influence of African artists like George Adeagbo.

Clarke’s work as both a writer and an artist is reflected both in the ‘Fan Series’ and ‘The Ghetto Fence Series’ of paintings, which interrogates the Apartheid experience, most forcefully in “Afrika Which Way?”, which Clarke made in Norway at the time of South Africa’s involvement in the Angolan Civil War. “For those Absent”, another piece in which Clarke mixes the literary with art, is a haunting meditation on a little known [in Britain, at least] incident during the First World War, when over 500 South Africa troops drowned off the Isle of Wight.

Although, his most recent work seems less pre-occupied with figurative representation, as an artist, Clarke says he remains “very much interested in people – because there are such interesting strange characters around”; he has no truck with South Africa’s continued contortions over racially classifying people but says it’s difficult to look into the future as far as that is concerned and how long it will take for such issues to disappear.

Clarke himself is the product of an interesting mixed heritage, including Kru sailors recruited by the British from Sierra Leone who eventually ended up settling in the Cape. Such cosmopolitanism in his ancestry seems to have influenced Clarke to travel and see the world, as he says “I was always curious about the world…living in Simon’s Town there were always people coming and going…I wanted to go out and experience art elsewhere…to go and have a look at things and feel what it is like to be here and then go home”.

“Peter Clarke: Wind Blowing on the Cape Flats” is showing at Rivington Place until the 13th March 2013.

Dele Meiji Fatunla is Website Editor for the Royal African Society and Editor of Gateway for Africa.