Ocean View artist left indelible mark

The late Peter Clarke at his home in Ocean View. PICTURE: Candice Chaplin

ROSHIELA MOONSAMY

One of Ocean View’s most famous sons was the late artist Peter Clarke who lived in Alpha Way from 1973 until his death in 2014.

Mr Clarke lived a life as colourful and rich as his artworks and left an indelible mark on the South African art landscape and in his community.

He was born on June 2 1929 in Simon’s Town, the third of six children (“Guest lecture on life and work of Peter Clarke”, False Bay Echo, June 29).

Mr Clarke’s family were among many who were forcibly removed from Simon’s Town under apartheid’s Group Areas Act and sent to live in Ocean View.

Barbara Voss, an artist, writer and retired art teacher, from Muizenberg, who had known Mr Clarke for many years, said he was a prolific artist who, over nearly seven decades, produced works in many styles and media, such as drawings, paintings, mixed media works and crafted pieces, including his artist books.

“He was also a renowned print-maker, famous for his lino- and woodcuts. His earlier works are mostly figurative with a strong narrative element, i.e. illustrating and interpreting the plight of people in his community. During the apartheid years, his works often commented on the injustices and suffering caused by the inhumanity of that regime. Later still, he worked in a more abstract way, often using collage of found papers in brilliantly coloured compositions which also often included text. His style is characterised by strong linear elements, vibrant colours and an emphasis of simplified shape.”

Commenting on the impact of Mr Clarke’s work on the South African art landscape, Ms Voss said: “Peter Clarke is considered to be a ‘godfather’ of South African black artists, alongside others such as Ernest Mancoba, Gerard Sekoto and George Pemba. His work is well represented in many collections and galleries, local as well as international. He was honoured with many prizes and distinctions, including the Order of Ikhamanga. At present, Peter Clarke is one of the artists studied by Grade 12 visual arts students. This ensures that his work will have an impact on the younger generations of art lovers and artists.”

Ms Voss said she feels privileged to have known such a wonderful human being and artist.

“He was excellent company: warm, witty and with a good sense of humour. He was quiet and unassuming, but he also had an aura of authority. He told us of an incident at an exhibition opening that left him shocked: a young black artist kneeled in front of him and asked Peter to bless him.”

Artist and cultural activist Lionel Davis, who had also known Mr Clarke for decades, added: “Becoming an artist was an unusual path to follow for someone coming from an impoverished community. But he followed his dream with great single-mindedness, disregarding the many obstacles in his way. This strength of vision and character makes him a role model for the younger generation.”

Another close family friend Mary Kindo, whose family was also uprooted from Simon’s Town and sent to Ocean View during apartheid, said Mr Clarke had mentored many young and upcoming artists. “He would offer his time and talent unselfishly and never turned away anyone who came to his door for advice or pupils doing an assignment about his life story, art or writing.”

She said Mr Clarke had been recycling materials long before it had become fashionable. “Nothing was wasted, all paper, tickets of any kind, card, wood, glass, he would reuse to create art out of them all.”

He was generous with his art and his time, she said.

“Peter did not drive or own a car, he would use public transport, many family, friends and acquaintances often offered to drive him to wherever he needed to be. He took nothing for granted. Whether you gave him a lift, invited him to visit to enjoy a cup of tea or drink, or shared good conversation, he would always show his appreciation by gifting the person with one of his art pieces. This he did throughout his lifetime, especially within his community of Simon’s Town and later in Ocean View,” said Ms Kindo, who returned to Simon’s Town in 2003.

She said Mr Clarke should be remembered for his courage and determination to not give up on his dream despite the odds stacked against him during apartheid. “There is so much the next generation can and should learn from his work and life story.”

Richard Clarke said his brother found inspiration in the community of Ocean View where he also lives. “He never wanted to move from here, for the simple reason that he felt part of the community.

“He was one who would stand by the fence, people would come past, and in his mind he would take a photograph, and then he would sketch what was in the road: anything that would pass, even if a feather blew past.”

Mr Clarke said among the works he owns of his brother’s is a pencil and watercolour painting of himself, Portrait of Richard Clarke, 1946.

He said his brother always had time for other people, was very helpful and had given art classes for the youth at Ocean View library.

In the book Listening to Distant Thunder, The art of Peter Clarke, by Philippa Hobbs and Elizabeth Rankin, first published by the Standard Bank of South Africa in 2011, they note: “As a man who suffered forced removal, one of the worst indignities apartheid imposed on South African people, Clarke had first-hand experience of oppression and was acutely aware of the injustices of his country. Rather than take up arms in the struggle, however, he worked in the belief of the liberating effect of cultural engagement, which created its own kind of resistance. His drawings, paintings and prints are lacking in bitterness: instead they probe South African experience, offering celebration of its joys as well as its ironies, and also a cautionary ‘distant thunder’ of human greed and trauma.

“Peter Clarke was above all a humanist. He was committed to the notion of a shared experience of art, one that has the power to dignify the lives of those subjected to the indignity of social oppression; hence his devoting time to making art accessible by teaching children and organising exhibitions in townships such as Ocean View.”

In honour of Peter Clarke, the Frank Joubert Art Centre, in Newlands, was renamed the Peter Clarke Art Centre in 2016.

Mr Clarke was awarded the Order of Ikhamanga by former president Thabo Mbeki in 2005 for his contribution to South African art and culture.

Liz Linsell, Chantel Erfort, Peter Clarke and Ruby Lara at the False Bay Echo’s 60th birthday function in 2013.
Peter Clarke’s 1999 print, Thistledown. PICTURE: Supplied