Peter Clarke (1929–2014) is an artist whose contribution to the canon of South African art history cannot be underestimated. Born and raised in the coastal town of Simonstown, Clarke’s first employment was as a dockworker in the area. However, having attended the District Six Art Group as a teenager, Clarke had already developed great skill as a draughtsman, and he began to receive commissions to create illustrations for various publications. In 1956 he made the decision to pursue a career as an artist.
In 1959, Clarke was granted a special permit to attend an etching course at the Michaelis School of Fine Art. As a person of colour, under apartheid law Clarke was not permitted to study full-time at the institution. Between 1959 and 1963, he studied at the prestigious Rijksakademie van Beeldende Kunsten in Amsterdam. Years later, in 1978, he travelled to Oslo’s Atelier Nord where he participated in a graphic art workshop.
With his idiosyncratic simplicity of form, Clarke depicted the daily lives, customs and traditions of communities in the Cape with a great deal of humanity and empathy. He expertly tempered the small joys of daily life with his social and political criticisms of the apartheid regime. In 1967, Clarke and his family fell victim to the Group Areas Act which saw them forcibly relocated to Ocean View. In the period that followed, his critique and personal anguish became visibly sharpened in the scenes he depicted.
Works by the artist have been exhibited around the globe to great acclaim. Significantly, his work was included in the 1961 Sāo Paolo Biennale, as well as in the 1964 Venice Biennale. In 2011, Clarke was recognised with a major retrospective exhibition of his work at the Standard Bank Gallery, Johannesburg and the Iziko South African National Gallery, Cape Town. It was accompanied by the comprehensive monograph, Listening to Distant Thunder written by Elizabeth Rankin and Philippa Hobbs. Additionally, the artist has been the recipient of a number of notable awards, including the Order of Ikhamanga, presented to him by President Thabo Mbeki in 2005.
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