‘Everything in South Africa has been mind-bogglingly spectacular.’ So wrote South African literary critic Njabulo Ndebele in his 1984 paper ‘Rediscovery of the Ordinary’, in which he equated the history of black literature to ‘the history of the representation of the spectacle’. His criticism was not confined to writers, however. Painters and sculptors were also guilty of ‘spectacular representation’, he said, creating ‘grotesque figures in all kinds of contortions indicative of agony’. While not denying the state’s excessive brutality, its draconian laws and war machinery, Ndebele was arguing for the representation of a broader truth – that ‘even under the most oppressive conditions, people are always trying and struggling to maintain a semblance of normal social order’.
During an introduction to his retrospective ‘Wind Blowing on the Cape Flats’, the painter, printmaker and poet Peter Clarke made a similar comment. ‘Life in South Africa wasn’t only unpleasant,’ the 83-year-old remarked, ‘people also celebrated and did normal things.’ The 80-odd works on display suggested a lifelong commitment to documenting the day-to-day. One of his earliest and simplest gouache paintings, Street Games (1949), shows a group of neighbours – young and old, some playing, some sitting, some going about their business – spread across a wide, pale yellow street. They appear so light and so free, it feels awkward to consider that the work was created a year into National Party rule.
In sharp contrast to the common idea of black South Africans being solely engaged in collective struggle against the apartheid state, Clarke insists on particularity, exploring people’s interior feelings and the nuance of their lives. Sister Eleanor Writing (1953), a small portrait in gouache, shows a young woman curled over her work, fixed with concentration, determined to study. In the compact etching Penny-whistle (1961), a young boy faces us, whistling alone in a quiet corner, practising without interruption. Baby, it’s hot (1977), a linocut printed in soft pinks and oranges, offers an intimate close-up on the toothy grin of a man wearing a single looped earring and a trilby hat, pulled down over his eyes to shield them from the sun. In another linocut, Man... en toe vertel ek hom... (Man... and then I told him..., 1972), two young women huddle at the side of the street, caught up in a good old gossip.
Although Clarke eschews the spectacular, he doesn’t duck politics. Three years after his neighbourhood, Simon’s Town, was declared ‘white’, he produced the arresting oil painting Listening to Distant Thunder (1970). Four angular figures stare anxiously into the dry karoo landscape, captured in deep oranges, yellows, reds and black. Their isolation is emphasized by the spiked branch of a bare tree that reaches over their heads, and the dark streaks of a storm on the horizon. It is telling that when this work was sold it was renamed Abandoned Family, a reflection of the anxiety experienced by so many South Africans, including Clarke, who were forcibly uprooted from their homes under the Group Areas Act. First passed in 1950, this act restricted each ‘racial group’ to its own area and, with time, ruthlessly pushed non-Whites out of towns and cities.
By the late 1970s, Clarke’s work had become more overtly concerned with the political. Afrika Which Way (1978) and the ‘Ghetto Fence’ series (1985–99), for example, see the artist turn to collage, inspired in part by the graffiti appearing on the walls and fences that divided South Africa, not only from itself but from the rest of the world too. In Afrika Which Way, Clark references some of the continent’s liberation leaders – including Amílcar Cabral, Kwame Nkrumah, Jomo Kenyatta and Julius Nyerere – and attacks the Cold War that was tearing southern Africa apart. ‘Russians go home, CIA go home, Cubans go home, Exiles come home’, reads the paintwork on the wall that runs across the centre of this work. In the foreground, a young man holds a bird cage; above it fly a pair of white doves. Have they just been released, or is he about to trap them?
Jointly curated by Iniva’s Tessa Jackson and the director of the South African National Gallery, Riason Naidoo, the exhibition is Clarke’s first major retrospective in Europe, where it will be touring. A slight surprise was the inclusion of photographs by Clarke’s friend, George Hallett. In particular, two images of Nelson Mandela, that mind-bogglingly spectacular figure, risk undercutting the subtlety that marks Clarke’s work. These appear towards the end of the show alongside a number of delightful leporellos laid out in glass cases, and close to several pieces from Clarke’s ‘Fan’ series (1996–2004) in which he combines collages of fans with text. In Comrade Lenin, for example, he fantasizes about ‘the fanatics’ queuing up to look at the late leader’s embalmed body: what would happen if it suddenly sat upright and yawned at them all? It is here, in the artist’s prose, that we encounter his humour and even a desire to satirize the spectacle from which he has characteristically averted his attention.