by Kim Gurney (September, 2003)
Peter Clarke is a highly accomplished and versatile visual artist, working across a broad spectrum of media. But he also has a literary side as an internationally acclaimed writer and poet. Of these three roles, he jokes: “Had I been triplets, it would have made it much easier because each could have his own jobÉ There are times when I go through a writing phase and there are times for phases of picture-making but there is never a dull moment.”
Clarke is best known for his graphic prints, particularly his woodcuts, and more recently he has moved into collage. He also uses leather, glass, found objects and other mixed media to produce his colourful work.
Born in Simons Town in 1929, Clarke’s artistic career spans many decades and he has unsurprisingly produced a large number of works and appeared in many exhibitions. Nevertheless, commentators generally feel that despite this experience and exposure, his work is not given the full recognition it deserves.
Although his work has naturally evolved over time, Clarke says its latest twist towards collage heralds a more abrupt and obvious change. He says: “Up to a certain time, I worked in a narrative manner. I had things to say and it was also expected of black artists to make statements about the state of affairs in the country. But it was a phase and I felt at the time that I also wanted to produce artwork without it necessarily making a statement about anything in particular.
“After 1994, I started feeling that one must also explore other things beyond the statement. I felt it was a time for liberation, a renaissance as being felt [in South Africa] in any case. So I gave free reign to working with various kinds of material like coloured paper, cloths, labels and whatever. I also became aware at this time of a lot of scrap material – like junk mail. Some of it is so colourful. I realized I could use it as material.
“South Africa is a very inspiring place. I am very much interested in people. If I decided only to work in a figurative way, there would be no end to what I want to say about people. People here are more involved with each other. The climate has a lot to do with it. And the variety of people – the physical variety – is very exciting in fact and the way people interact or not. I used to think of South Africa as a mad house but a mad house is far more interesting, really. Had I lived in Europe, my art would have been completely different and probably not at all figurative.
“My earliest influences were the Mexican artists of the 1930s, 40s and 50s and the German Expressionists. I have also been very interested in Japanese art. It has a very attractive style. In the early 1940s and 50s, I also began thinking about what an art teacher [at school] had said. And I took evening classes at St Phillips in District Six where I came into contact with others involved in that space. The interaction led to exploration through books and exhibitions in Cape Town.
With retrospect, Clarke thinks the theme of space is recurrent through his work. He says: “Physical space, mental space, these seem to have been a preoccupation throughout my life.” Even his poetry has reflected this concern, as the words of one of his poems describe: “Sunlight reflected in a distant window”.