02.03.18 – 07.04.18
“Peter Clarke coming!” I would hear the excited voice of my son Leon, then two or three years old, as he saw the familiar figure of our friend walking up the hill towards our ground floor flat in Kalk Bay. This would be on a Saturday morning in the early 1990s, when Peter Clarke and my partner, Lionel Davis, were becoming close friends. I did not know Peter well then, but I was struck by his authoritative manner when talking about art and the art world.
While Peter was modest about his own achievement, he did not undervalue himself either. Often, he would have a roll of prints under his arm and, sometimes, he would delight us with the gift of a print, a collage, or a drawing. Our Saturdays were filled with improvised snacks, tea, wine, and whiskey and conversations about artists, art, and the excitement and uncertainties of the political changes in the country at that time. Peter’s cool, cerebral and witty take on the latest scandal within the art world would be met by Lionel’s own comical reflections on the matter and his uproarious laughter. Peter and Lionel had a comprehensive ‘who’s who’ of the Cape Town art world at their fingertips. Both had been involved in the Community Arts Project (CAP), and both were familiar with many of the movers and shakers, both academic and commercial, behind the Cape Town art scene. Both enjoyed walking around Kalk Bay, bumping into and chatting with friends and acquaintances from Simon’s Town or Ocean View. The constant meetings with old familiar faces that was a general feature of going for a walk with either Peter or Lionel made me realise that Cape Town was in some ways a village rather than a city.
Both Peter and Lionel had roots in Simon’s Town and discovered that some of their ancestral family members had attended school together. A photograph at the Simon’s Town Museum shows Clarke’s grandfather in a Masonic group photo that also has Davis’ granduncle in it. Both can trace their ancestry back to Sierra Leone. Davis has a cousin who turned out to be a godchild of Peter Clarke. There was also a physical resemblance between the artists, who were often mistaken for each other. Even Rose Clarke, Peter’s mother, commented on their resemblance.
Born within seven years of each other – Clarke in 1929 in Simon’s Town and Davis in 1936 in District 6 – the two artists shared many similarities in their backgrounds: both grew up in working class families, at a time when coloured communities in Cape Town still enjoyed a relative cohesiveness, before the destruction of these communities and the start of forced removals during the 1960s and 70s. Work opportunities for young coloured males with a standard seven education were limited to menial jobs, and so both started their working lives as unskilled labourers.
In spite of these similarities, their journeys as artists took very different routes. Peter Clarke knew from an early age that he would be an artist and a writer one day, and pursued his dream with single-minded dedication. Drawings and paintings from the late 1940s and early 1950s reflect a budding artist who was honing his skills in many different mediums, but always seemed to gravitate towards subjects found within his immediate surroundings, namely the people and places of his neighbourhood in Simon’s Town. Some of his drawings and paintings from the early 1950s already exhibit a preoccupation with simplification and the geometric linear approach to stylised form, which would become one of Clarke’s constant stylistic devices throughout his long career.
Clarke received little formal training, however, he did attend part-time classes and workshops from time to time. Being an avid reader and autodidact with a huge appetite for information, he had an excellent understanding of art history in general, and an awareness of contemporary trends – not all of which he embraced. I remember visiting a show at the AVA with him and looking at an installation of curiously aggressive objects, scattered across the floor. Looking at him questioningly, he turned to me and whispered, “Let’s just quietly walk away before it notices us.”
Recognition, though modest, came to Clarke at an early age and he succeeded in having exhibitions annually from the mid-1950s onward. He exhibited at established galleries but would also show his work at public libraries, in restaurants, and other less obvious venues.
In 1957, Clarke resigned from his job at the Simon’s Town docks and after a three-month sabbatical in rural Tesslarsdaal, decided to be a full-time artist. At the time, he painted mainly in oils and gouache, while the 1970s saw him introducing print media such as woodcut and linocut, as well as etching. Collage became a favoured medium from the 1970s onward.
With a steady local appreciation and acknowledgement of his talent in visual art as well as writing, Clarke began to receive recognition internationally and was regularly invited to participate in overseas exhibitions. Travel overseas also became a reality from the 1960s, when he attended residencies in the Netherlands, Norway, and in the United States. By the mid-1980s, Clarke had a lengthy and impressive C.V., including dozens of exhibitions, both group and one-man. His short stories had appeared in numerous collections, and he had published a collection of poems, Plain Furniture, in 1990. He received an honorary doctorate from a Taiwanese University in 1986 and, in 1990, his position as an important artist was further cemented by a retrospective exhibition at the Labia Museum (then part of the South African National Gallery). Throughout the years of his establishment and rise on the local art scene, Clarke struggled financially and was frequently forced to concentrate on his craft skills such as leather work and jewellery making for additional income. He occasionally worked as an illustrator, produced postcards, and once made hundreds of bookmarks from leftover bits of collage paper. Despite his frantic output, some in his community saw him as a lay-about, dependent on his mother’s pension, a fact that was deeply painful to him.
Financial success did eventually come, especially after Clarke’s 2004 exhibition at the Michael Stevenson Gallery. Fanfare was a series of mixed media works in the shape of ‘fans’ accompanied by texts, authored by Clarke, to go with them. Each of these ‘fans’ commemorated or honoured a specific individual: real or imaginary people, famous artists, ordinary people, Biblical figures. These works were also produced as a book of the same name. A major retrospective at the Iziko S.A. National Gallery in 2010 was the culmination of a long, consistent, and exceptionally prolific life as an artist. The monograph, Listening to Distant Thunder (also the title of the retrospective), was published at the time of the retrospective exhibition.
Peter Clarke died, in his home at 14 Alpha Way, Ocean View, in 2014. Hundreds of his admirers, friends and acquaintances from the art world attended his funeral at St. Francis Church in Simon’s Town.
Lionel Davis found his way to art after a seven-year stint of incarceration on Robben Island as a political prisoner. He had been involved in anti-apartheid activism, and his organisation (the National Liberation Front) had planned to overthrow the government. Following his jail time, he was kept under house arrest for five years. Having gone through these ordeals, he felt the need for healing, which was one of the reasons he was drawn to art. The Community Arts Project (CAP) was the place that allowed him to immerse himself in a creative environment and quench his thirst for stimulation, challenge, and self-expression. CAP was one of the few places where people from all population groups with an interest in the arts could meet and perform, create, learn, and teach.
Davis attended workshops and programmes in visual art, drama, and writing. The new environment allowed him to fill the vast emptiness which was the result of years of isolation and deprivation. He soon started work at CAP, first as a cleaner and caretaker, and later as a teacher, organiser, print-maker and facilitator. He became deeply involved in the CAP printmaking project, which designed and screen printed numerous anti-apartheid posters and t-shirts. They also helped community groups print their own designed posters, banners, and t-shirts.
It was in the vibrant atmosphere of CAP that Clarke and Davis first met. Davis had known about ‘this famous coloured artist, Peter Clarke’ from reading about him. Although Clarke never attended or taught workshops at CAP, he was a regular visitor, participating in exhibitions, opening exhibitions, and joining in the many art events and open days. Both of them attended the ground-breaking Culture and Resistance Festival in Gaborone, Botswana in 1982, where anti-apartheid activists and artists met to discuss the function of the arts within the oppressive regime of South Africa. Returning from the festival, many artists committed themselves to using art to help uplift their communities and to be politically outspoken against apartheid in their art, to create art that would bring about political change.
Although Clarke never became a political activist and his work can hardly be classed as protest art, his work often deals with the hardships experienced by his community and other coloured and black South Africans under apartheid. During the mid-to late 80s, Clarke created a series of works dealing more overtly with political issues than any of his previous works. Those are the Ghetto Fence Series, in which he uses graffiti and collage to make statements about racial and political events of the time. On a practical level, he started running children’s art classes in Ocean View, the coloured township that his family had been removed to.
Davis, also no longer a member of a political party, started calling himself a ‘cultural worker’, and ploughed his energy into assisting with the running of the screen-printing workshop at CAP. His involvement in CAP had opened many opportunities for him to acquire formal art skills. Although he had loved drawing as a child, he found that now, in his early forties, he needed to catch up on his art training in a hurry. In this spirit, he enthusiastically applied for a two-year course at the Rorke’s Drift Arts and Craft Centre, an art school and craft workshop in (then) Natal, open to blacks. This was funded and run by the Swedish Evangelical Lutheran Church. At Rorke’s Drift, Davis was trained in basic drawing, water colour painting, and print-making using linocut.
Back at CAP after two years, he continued to take classes in drawing and short courses offered by different institutions. In 1986, he was invited to participate in a Thupelo workshop where artists from different parts of the world worked in close proximity, each artist benefitting from the exposure to different approaches and techniques of the group. The focus of these workshops was on experimentation with unconventional materials and techniques, especially as applied to abstract art. Here, Davis experienced the liberation from ‘correct’ approaches to art and from limiting himself to representation. This was also his introduction to using found materials and painting with acrylics.
The Thupelo workshops became a regular feature in Davis’s life, and he still attends them. These workshops also paved the way for Davis to travel overseas, to the U.S.A. in 1987, when he was invited to participate in a Triangle workshop in upstate New York.
Clarke attended one Thupelo workshop in 1985, but it did not seem to influence his artmaking as profoundly as it did Davis’. Having worked alone for the past thirty years, Peter Clarke may have found the presence of the group intrusive or overwhelming. He never applied to attend another Thupelo workshop.
One venture that brought the two artists together more closely was the Vakalisa group, a loose collaboration between visual artists, writers, poets, and photographers, with the purpose of producing a calendar showcasing their work and allowing for free political expression. Clarke, whose elegant handwriting was used to write all the text of some of these editions, also submitted poems and drawings. Davis contributed drawings as well. According to Davis, the planning meetings were vibrant social occasions, cementing bonds and a network of creatives, often supporting each other beyond the Vakalisa project.
In the early 1990s, Davis felt the need to further his education in fine art and enrolled in a four-year degree course at the U.C.T. Michaelis School of Fine Art. He was a mature student at 54, but enthusiastically embraced his studies, majoring in printmaking.
The years at Michaelis gave Davis a wonderful break from his usual work demands and allowed him to focus solely on his art making. Although he had family commitments and still served on some organisational boards, he could now explore new concepts and techniques and, most importantly, allow himself to be challenged artistically. At this time, Davis was able to integrate his preoccupation with representation with the freedom of experimentation gained in the Thupelo workshops. Using the skills in screen-printing that he had acquired at the CAP poster printing department, he now transferred these to producing abstract works both in painting and printmaking and more personalised political commentary. Michaelis also provided an opportunity to experiment with three-dimensional expression, resulting in assemblages using mostly found materials.
Shortly after he completed his degree in 1995, the Robben Island Museum came into operation and offered Davis a position as a prison guide, including an offer of housing on the island for him and his family. After the financial struggle of being a full-time student and still providing, at least partially, for a family, this seemed a more than welcome option. Besides, Davis had by now become quite a polished public speaker and the idea of talking about his past was appealing. While jail had been traumatic in some ways, it had also been a growth experience for Davis. When talking to visitors to the island, Davis always emphasises the beneficial humanitarian lessons he learnt as a political prisoner.
Robben Island was a blessing for us as a family in many ways. It was a beautiful natural environment to live in. Besides work, there were few distractions and Davis was able to continue with his artmaking, at least some of the time. We did not have as much contact with Peter Clarke as we had in Kalk Bay, but he did spend a special New Year’s Eve with us in 2006.
Our contact with him became closer and more frequent again when we left Robben Island and moved to Muizenberg in 2007. Peter had never owned a car, and we were now able to get together making use of the (then) convenient train service or using our car to drive out to Peter’s place in Ocean View. In his last years, Peter became more dependent on others giving him lifts to different venues. We often enjoyed getting together to visit gallery openings, one of Peter’s great pleasures. Wine glass in hand, he could be found to make the most of chatting to old friends and young artists who would invariably be found at these events. Peter Clarke was by then a “big name” in the art world and there was never a shortage of admirers wishing to chat with him. At exhibition openings, we were used to waiting for our friend, who would always be last person to leave.
The filmmaker, Bridget Thompson, had been researching the artist Ernest Mancoba, who had spent his life in France and Denmark after leaving South Africa in the 1940s. Mancoba had been brought to visit South Africa during his last years by Thompson, and Clarke and Davis had got to know him personally at the time. After Mancoba’s death, Thompson initiated a number of educational projects to keep Mancoba’s memory alive and to raise awareness and respect for his contribution. As part of her project to ‘bring Mancoba home’ and make him known to South Africans, she held numerous art workshops in various under-resourced townships in South Africa. She invited Clarke and Davis, both of whom she had known for many years, to act as facilitators for some of these workshops. Thus the two friends and artists had a last collaborative venture to carry out and to enjoy each other’s company.
The joint exhibition, at SMAC Gallery in Stellenbosch in 2018, provides a fitting tribute to these two artists and friends who have had a huge influence on so many people and whose work has brought joy, fascination, and appreciation to a very large audience.
Written by Barbara Voss
25 February 2018