Monday, November 30, 2009

They’ve Always Got Something To Talk About & After They Went Away

Today’s images are They’ve Always Got Something To Talk About and After They Went Away. Neither is dated so I can’t tell if they were made at the same time but they are certainly very similar in style, both boldly carved prints in black ink, hand-coloured with watercolour.
Whether they are related or not, they have created in my mind another story and I am reminded again of the words of the Barbadian blogger, The Bajan Reporter: “His linocuts and woodcuts remind me for the most part of cels from an animated feature yet to be fully crafted, and I want to view the whole feature!”

(If you would like to view his blog click on the link below – there is also a wonderful clip of Bridget Thompson speaking at the opening of the Barbadian A Hot and Quiet Evening)

They’ve Always Got Something to Talk About is a delightful scene in which two women converse outside on a blustery day while a little girl – clearly the daughter of one of them – stands between them, uninvolved, apparently bored or perhaps just complacent – I imagine that it is from her thoughts that the title comes. 

The sensation of being outside in a real space is astonishingly apparent. Enormous, completely un-naturalistic clouds hover over the women and a small house in the distance – bloated and round like hefty water balloons. Set against a backdrop of heavy-looking black horizontal lines, the atmosphere feels taught and expectant – it seems likely that it is about to rain.
Perhaps this is the cause for the little girl’s long-suffering evaluation of the situation. Maybe the house in the distance is hers and she longs to get to it before the skies open up – or perhaps hers is still a way off and she has little hope of returning to it un-drenched.

Contrasting sadly with this charming, life-filled little scene is After They Went Away. While the first image is a moment in time, brief and changing as life is, in this second image the sad little house, dilapidated and overgrown, has about it an immense stillness. There is something slightly tragic about an abandoned house. While occupied, these human creations seem to take on a life of their own. When empty they seem to be in a state of waiting, as if hoping to return to life.

This feeling is undoubtedly caused by Clarke’s effective and poetic use of words in the title. ‘Abandoned House’ would not have resonated so forlornly within me but his words manage to anthropomorphise this inanimate object, creating a strange empathy with it. Through this subtle and strange twist in identification, the house seems to become a metaphorical object for human impermanence.
There is something strangely spiritual about the blue sky coming through the broken rafters and disintegrating thatch of the roof. The house’s solidity is being proven to be an illusion and it is slowly being taken back into nature, returning to the earth and oneness.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Peter Clarke - creative energy

I am currently doing an artists course entitled ‘The Artists Way’ which is supposed to encourage the creative process. While browsing through information on Peter Clarke for the purpose of writing today’s blog, I came upon a quote that seemed to explain Clarke’s creative energy. He is an incredibly prolific artist, having taken part in over 40 exhibitions since 1957 to the present day – that is at least one exhibition every one and a half years. On his process he comments, "I work when the idea strikes. I don't have a regime; while I work the ideas come. I'm not interested in waiting around for the muse."

His method – generating ideas through using the creative process – confirms for me the deep spirituality of Clarke’s work. The creative process has often been described as being spiritually driven, and Clarke’s words indicate an incredible harmony with this force that is splendidly and powerfully down to earth.

In June 2006 Peter Clarke spoke at an artist’s workshop at the Art and Ubuntu Trust and organisation dedicated to ensuring that the legacy of Ernest Mancoba, South African artist and philosopher, lives on so that it may enrich South Africa both socially and creatively. This is the organisation that worked in collaboration with the Kalk Bay Modern to put together a Hot And Quiet Evening.

(for more info see link below) 

His talk focussed on how a work of art has a life of its own once it is complete and viewed by other people. His personal example of this was seeing a photograph of Gerard Sekoto in a newspaper as he left for Paris. This experience had a great impact on his life, convincing him that a black man could become an artist – which could easily seem like a pipe dream whilst living during apartheid.

The fact that Clarke was so prolific during a time of such crushing ideology is amazing and awe-inspiring. That he continued to be prolific after the backdrop of his entire life and work started to fall away is even more amazing still and is the result of his flexibility and ability to change as the world changes.

The differences and similarities between Clarke’s work during the apartheid years and his work now are interesting to consider. He speaks about how after 1994 he felt the urge to start creating work that did not necessarily make ‘a statement’, as was expected of black artists during apartheid. 

I think that this sentiment – wanting to move beyond the statement – shows an incredible personal as well as artistic maturity. It can become easy for an artist to fall back on social criticism as a way of feeling relevant.
While social criticism certainly has its place in art, to think it is the pinnacle of art’s purpose (as some do) creates something incredibly narrow and stagnant and is, I think, a symptom of the need for art to be something grand and commanding – somehow an authority on life.

To get caught in the role of the critic is to never see life as it is exists in between the various unhealthy social constructs and mindsets that do undeniably exist. It is more important, more progressive, and more helpful I think to realise and be in tune with the beautiful, wholesome aspects of life that continue to exist on a day-to-day level in spite of various social ills. This living, breathing world, real, wonderful, painful, even prosaic, is the world that Peter Clarke depicts.

Art is relevant, not when it holds up a moralizing mirror to society but when it is the result of being deeply in tune with people, one’s own personhood and the spiritual, creative flow of life. A true artist is not one who stands by the wayside and criticizes but one for whom art is the by-product of living fully and presently, characteristics that Peter Clarke most certainly embodies.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Weeds Can Also Be Beautiful and Oupa en Ouma se Huis.

You can view a you-tube video clip of an interview, posted by the Art Times, with Peter Clarke at the opening of A Hot And Quiet Evening. Click on the link below to view.

Today we will be exploring the world of minutiae in which Peter Clarke finds inspiration. We will also be looking at how this relates to his interest in the day-to-day life of human beings.

Our first image is tiny itself, not more than a few centimetres across, a miniature linocut, hand coloured with water colour, entitled, Weeds Can Also Be Beautiful (undated). It is a charming little image in which the boldness of linocut (especially emphasised on such a small scale) is used to create a sweetly simple representation of a few odd little flowers, twigs and leaves. It immediately struck me as being a little metaphorical – after all most of Clarke’s work celebrates the wildflowers of humanity rather than the hothouse blooms.

The celebration of the quiet and the small has a depth and dignity which we often overlook in favour of the bold, dramatic and revolutionary. In this respect Peter Clarke’s work reminds of Zen and Taoist art and seems to embody these philosophies. The rhythmic spirit of natures in particular is important in Taoist art and we see this larger-than-human force entering individual lives in many of Clarke’s works, such as in the previously discussed Doing What We Have To Do, We Get On With Our Lives in which the stormy sky and flight of the birds are echoed by the crippled man in the centre of the village.

In fact the majority of Clarke’s works depicting human figures show them outside interacting with, or simply existing in, some element of the natural world. This particularly emphasises the smallness of these humans and their little lived as they are placed against the powerful and ancient forces of nature. In Weeds Can Also Be Beautiful we see how nature’s omnipresence also makes use of the very small.

The second image is entitled By Oupa en Ouma se Huis (2006). Here we see an old couple next to their man-made dwelling but, not surprisingly, they are sitting outside in the fresh air. When a human figure is shown indoors or in a cityscape it becomes larger than life – a godlike inhabitant of a world self-created and controlled. When we see people existing in nature we are given a more holistic perspective – one in which people are small and the universe is big.
This however does in no way make the small unimportant or unworthy of interest. The title of this piece means Next To Grandpa and Grandma’s House. A deep and loving interest is being shown in the life of an individual and a family, the smallest and second smallest unit of humanity. There is such a poignant beauty in this approach. It hints at a truth of being that is simpler and more profound than any of the philosophies in which humanity is glorified or damned, Underneath all existential angst or ecstatic ambition, we are all rather little creatures, merely parts of a very big world and this is the most beautiful, noble and joyful truth of all.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Bathers with Passing Yacht (1969) - Peter Clark

Bathers with Passing Yacht (1969) is the image I will be discussing today and it is such a luxurious picture that I feel sorely tempted to leave my desk and follow the example of the reclining figures.

The scene is a timeless, sundrenched day spent next to the sea, (quite possibly a scene from a harbour in Simonstown). The atmosphere is utterly familiar to me; it is so unmistakably Cape Town in the summer on one of those perfect days in which the air seems to contain something indescribable, both elating and soporific.
No doubt this is the sort of day which would precede the ‘hot and quiet evening’ of the exhibition title. This show was initially intended to introduce Barbadians to Cape Town and Clarke talks about the similarities between the weather of Cape Town and Barbados – the powerful storms and terrible winds, as well as the long hot summer days. There is something mysterious and connecting in the palpable effect that weather has on those who expose themselves to its vast but changeable phases.
The intense colouring of this woodcut creates the atmosphere of shimmering heat, a sense of air so warm it is almost solid. The figures are as natural and integrated into the landscape as a crowd of sea-gulls; they are overcome with the stillness and content that humans rarely experience away from the hypnotic sun and mesmerising sea.
The sea is slightly rippled by the gentlest wind – days on which the South Easter does not blow are always set apart; there is just enough of a breath to fill the white sails of the yacht, the lightest object both in terms of tone and gravitational quality. The horizontal lines of figures, land, and sea are as languorous and sedentary as their rich golden and copper colour while the crisp white of the ship offers a breath of fresh air. It is silhouetted against an almost purely abstracted background which could be sky or land. Its density, verticality, and vaguely cubist configuration convince me that it is the land on the other side of a bay, which encloses and cocoons the day’s warmth.

Knowledge (2006) - Peter Clarke

I was struck by the work Knowledge (2006) when I first saw it; it reminded me strongly of posters I recall gazing up at in junior school celebrating reading week or encouraging reading in general. These posters always seemed very important to me and I was always warmed by them – there were people in the world who knew how wonderful reading was and they were trying to encourage others to discover this. Then there were the posters stating the demographics of illiteracy rates in and around South Africa (and sometimes the world) and I discovered for the first time that there were people who had not been given the education that I had, that to refrain from reading was not always a choice, that the necessary tuition was not as abundant as tap-water (which again I went on to find out was not as abundant as I had thought).
Perhaps it is for these reasons that Knowledge strikes a chord in me. Books were a haven for me as a child and in books I came across, more than once, stories of people learning to read, or pursuing a higher education while struggling against the tide of their circumstances to do so, and I was always filled with awe. 
This image seems to encapsulate my experiences as I brushed against this other world. Even without the title, one can sense a story; the young man has a glow around him as he sits in a dark space. There is the hinted presence of a candle or some such humble lighting device that provides just enough light to see by (does this man study late at night after working a long day?  Is this his valued leisure time, savoured while others sleep?). The unspecified light-source also doubles as the aura of the world he is experiencing – for him nothing exists beyond the world his mind is occupying. The ability for the human mind to space-and-time travel into the imagination in this way is deeply mysterious; this experience alone may be as valuable as all the knowledge one may absorb from the writing itself.
I have noted the story-telling quality in Clarkes work in the previous blog but I think it is worth reiterating as it is such an integral feature to appreciating his work. It seems probable that it is the result of Clarke’s other creative outlet, poetry, having a natural and enriching influence on his printmaking and drawing. For Clarke, the combination of practices results in a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts.
The addition of the title ‘Knowledge’ lends a bold, archetypal quality to the delicate humanism of the implied story. It draws us away from the account of an individual (this young man and his private toil) and reminds us that each knowledge seeker is a tributary that joins up to a great ocean of collected experience.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

I chose today’s images as examples of Peter Clarke’s interest and celebration of everyday life, especially within his own community. He works primarily with wood and linocuts, two similar print-making methods that enhance and complement the simplicity and honesty of his subject matter.

Coming From Shopping (1968) silhouettes a female figure against an autumnal background of trees, grass, flowers and sky. The stylized forms recall traditional African carvings and the minimalism of the figure casts her as an ‘everywoman’ of the community. She does what all must do, and do frequently. There is a brisk purposefulness to her figure – rendered nearly featureless due to our vantage point and the use of monochrome – which contrasts interestingly with the lively beauty of the natural background. She seems slightly disconnected from her surroundings; her mind is already occupied with her destination, home, and the tasks that lie ahead of her. She is not a lady of leisure to stroll slowly and luxuriate in the beauty of nature. She will cook, feed people, organise things; she has a lot to do. I like to think though that as she strides through the beautiful landscape she feels a lightness in her step and that unnamed pleasure that comes from being at one with oneself and ones surroundings, rather than a disconnected, if admiring, observer.
I like the relationship between this image and the next one which is entitled, Doing What We Do, We Get On With Our Lives (undated). It seems entirely possible that this should be the woman’s destination. The scene is of a small village, inhabited by characters with such human qualities that one almost feels they are the unnamed people that surround us on a daily basis, just a few of the many thousands that we do not form any particular connection with, but of whom we are peripherally aware, strangers, yet kin, all of us in the great mixing pot of humanity.

 Birds silhouetted against the sky show a favourite theme of Clarke’s. He has a fascination with birds that he says started when he was very young at an uncle’s funeral. He was a pigeon trainer and at the end of the ceremony great baskets of birds were let loose creating a flurry in the sky.
The birds certainly seem to convey a strange, slightly melancholy spiritual quality as they fly together across a brooding sunset sky. Below them in the centre of the village is the poignant figure, in a large overcoat, of a man on crutches. He is seen from behind, his head is dipped and he does not see the magnificent, startling flight of birds above him. But of all the characters he most seems to have a tie with them, in spite of, or perhaps because he is the least free to move.  His broken body has the mark of mortality upon it, invisible in the busy figures of the other folk; his shackles bring him closer to the moment when he will be free.
The evocative story-illustration power of Clarkes’ work was recently noted by Barbadian blogger, the Bajan Reporter after he exhibited A Hot and Quiet Evening in Barbados. As he put it, “His linocuts and woodcuts remind me for the most part of cels from an animated feature yet to be fully crafted, and I want to view the whole feature!”
Of course the story is that of Clarkes’ life and the life of his community and I look forward to sharing (and investigating) more images and stories over the next couple of weeks!

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Last night, the Kalk Bay Modern had the honour and pleasure of presenting A Hot and Quiet Evening, an exhibition of work spanning six decades by veteran South African artist and poet Peter Clarke. The exhibition was opened by Clarke’s long time friend and associate Lionel Davis whose wonderfully anecdotal speech enlightened the gathered crowd as to the origins of this remarkable exhibition and gave us some insight into the man who created it.
A Hot and Quiet Evening was first exhibited in Barbados at the Errol Barrow Centre for Creative Imagination (EBCCI) and is the loving product of Peter Clarke’s long-standing interest in Barbados and his correspondence with celebrated Barbadian author George Lamming. Lionel Davis related the story in which Clarke was presented with a copy of Lamming’s book, In the Castle of my Skin, which marked the beginning of their liaison. The victim of a forced removal at the hands of the apartheid government, Peter Clarke noted the similarities between the political and social histories of Barbados and South Africa and was moved to form a channel of communication between them.
His interest in Barbados, however, had been kindled long ago during his childhood in the vibrant mixed community of Simonstown before the forced removal to Ocean View – which, it has been noted, is depressingly deficient in a sea view. An uncle on Clarke’s father’s side had originated from Barbados and as a child Clarke had always been curious about him. He notes sadly that after the upheaval of his childhood, he was left with little more than this scrap of information about him and the knowledge that he will never be able to find out any more.
Clarke’s work is a celebration and documentation of the everyday life of his community. It has tremendous value both aesthetically and historically. It is this historical similarity that outwardly proved to be the link between Barbados and South Africa. But it is in something more closely human, more day-to-day, that the connection truly lies.
Bridget Thompson, director of the Art and Ubuntu Trust, spoke at the Barbados opening of A Hot and Quiet Evening, and read aloud from a statement Peter had written about the show. As it turns out, he had been familiar with Lamming’s work since he was a young man of 25. On a date he very specifically remembers, 7 December 1954, he bought an American paperback book called New World Writing, an anthology of fiction, non-fiction, poetry and art, from contributors all around the world. It contained an extract of the book he was to receive many years later, In the Castle of My Skin, which spoke of life in Barbados.
What he speaks of most hauntingly is an incredible sense of familiarity in the world Lamming described. His description of this revelation - “the  characters, their responses to each other, the settings, the colours projected into my consciousness, all of it as if part of my own life.” – reminds me of how I felt as I stood in front of many of his works. The power of an everyday scene lies in its ability to transport one into a moment of pure being, a moment in which one somehow experiences existence in another time or place, not in a way that is monumental, mind-blowing or disorientating, but deeply, quietly and with a sense of belonging.
His hopes that the Barbadian viewers of his exhibition might experience a similar strange sense of familiarity when looking at his images shows a deep commitment to communication, a point that Lionel Davis emphasized about his friend, and an understanding of the web that interconnects all of humanity.
I look forward in the coming few weeks to sharing some of his beautiful images with you and giving more specific information on the works on exhibition. A Hot and Quiet Evening runs until the 30th of November and is very much worth visiting. 

The Kalk Bay Modern would like to warmly thank the Art and Ubuntu Trust and the EBCCI Gallery in Barbados for providing us with material concerning this exhibition.

Monday, November 9, 2009

This Wednesday, 11th of November, at 6:00 PM, the Kalk Bay Modern will be presenting the opening of A Hot and Quiet Evening – A Peter Clarke Exhibition. Opening the exhibition will be Lionel Davis and it will run from 11th – 30th November. Be sure not to miss as it promises to be a magnificent show featuring one of South Africa’s veteran artists.
This will be my last post about Paul Weinberg’s work and I have five wonderful images to share with you.
When I wrote about the Moving Spirit body of work in a previous blog, I did not yet have access to postable copies of his beautiful photographs (though I did have his book by the same title on my lap as I wrote). As I now do, I will post a few of my favourites and tell you a little more about them. 

The first image, I have chosen for its ‘surely-not’ factor. It shows a famous sangoma, Khekhekhe Mtetwa putting a black mamba snake in his mouth at an annual festival of fruits ceremony, near Eshowe, Kwazulu Natal. The black mamba is possibly the most feared snake in South Africa – it is extremely poisonous and is the only snake that will in fact chase you if you happen to disturb it. There is something both matter of fact and alarming in the eyes of Khekhekhe as he chews thoughtfully on the head of the snake, apparently no more concerned than if it was a rather sharp sour worm, or an unsavoury bit of rubber. I also cannot figure out why a fruit ceremony requires such an unlikely (albeit magnificent) feat.

The second image once again features a sangoma, this time a young woman in a state of trance at a graduation ceremony for traditional healers at Hlabisa, KwaZulu Natal. It is a wonderfully atmospheric photograph, the transcendent quality of the sangoma’s face enhanced by light and movement interference, caught by the camera and creating the surreal effect of her spirit moving through her. It is clear why this image was chosen for the cover of the Moving Spirit anthology – it certainly captures the strange, indefinable nature of the spirit and the spiritual quest.

I seem to be focussing mainly on sangoma’s here but I can’t resist one last image documenting their activities as this shows a particularly fascinating and relatively new addition to the practice. Our third image shows that novel being, a white sangoma, performing a cleansing ceremony for a twasa (a sangoma trainee) in the Umgeni River in KwaZulu Natal. The emergence of white sangomas is a wonderfully unusual phenomenon, seeming to indicate a deep connection between spirituality and the land as well as a cross-pollination of cultures that seems to confirm, as Paul has observed, that all spiritual tributaries lead to the same ocean common to us all.

And with that I move away from sangoma’s to another facet of that ocean (metaphorically and in this case literally) to baptisms of a Zion Church sect, on Inhaca Island, Mozambique. I have chosen these images for two reasons: I have always been fascinated by baptism, its significance as rebirth and the physicality of its process. This is not dusty intellectual spirituality experienced in the form of a classroom lecture. This is a process involving all the senses and allowing for physical contact between religious brethren in a holistic in what I imagine to be an intensely moving, deeply spiritual experience. The second of these two pictures on Inhaca Island shows a man praying, either before or after a baptism. I find this to be a most beautiful image, stirringly reverent yet profoundly calm, contrasting wonderfully with the intense, almost frenzied surge of rapture displayed in the first of the two.
I have really enjoyed discussing Paul Weinberg's work and hope that the information was useful and interesting.
The Peter Clarke exhibition this Wednesday promises to be a wonderful show – don’t miss it!

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Today I’ll be posting three of my favourite Paul Weinberg images.  
The first, I think, links interestingly to our last image –Nelson Mandela casting his ballot in 1994’s first democratic elections. The image is entitled Inauguration of Mandela, Pretoria 1994, and shows a white, blonde little boy sitting below an enormous projection screen containing Mandela’s face. The tension in the photo seems to embody the fears of many white South Africans at the time – that with the ANC in power, things would become very bad for whites. 

The huge figures of Mandela and two companions – faceless, only parts of their heads are showing – loom over the little blonde figure – his dress, haircut and general air somehow seem to cast him as a representative of conservative, apprehensive whitedom.
The second image captures an extremely heart-warming moment but is also a record of the human rights violations committed by the old South African government. Reunion after 20 Years, Riemvasmaak, 1995, shows two sisters who were classified as belonging to different races during Apartheid, and under the Group Areas Act were separated. 

However, the pure happiness and love on the old woman’s face, as her eyes and hands join those of her recovered sister, makes this image primarily a tribute to joy, love and positive change.  It is a truly beautiful image.
On the theme of change, the last photograph is a breezy, unusual image entitled On the ‘Quickie’, Durban Harbour, 1996. It was used for the cover of Paul Weinberg’s book Travelling Light, in which Inauguration of Mandela and Reunion after 20 Years are also published. As previously mentioned Travelling Light is a collection of Paul’s work spanning 25 years.

The Quickie was a ferry that carried people to-and-fro across Durban Harbour and often contained a wide assortment of interesting characters. This photograph has a delightfully whimsical atmosphere capturing the joyful feeling of freedom that comes with travel. The figure (consisting only of a pair of legs in a windswept skirt) could be a tourist or holidaymaker or someone travelling across the harbour after a longs days work. Whatever the case, for this moment – as she stands carefree and somewhat precariously on the edge of the ferry – the wind and the waves whisper the promise of adventure.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Paul Weinberg’s exhibition – Here and There – came to an end on Saturday. All in all it was a hugely successful show, with an opening night that will surely be remembered for a long time to come in both the Kalk Bay community as well as the greater art sphere.

The next exciting exhibition will feature the work of Peter Clarke, an extremely versatile and award winning South African artist – there will be more to follow on that soon.

In the meantime we will explore a few more of Paul Weinberg’s remarkable images, starting today with a truly triumphant moment in our political and ethical history.

The image is of Nelson Mandela casting his vote in South Africa’s first democratic elections in 1994. Paul described the moment of taking the shot – the awkward angle and the frantic atmosphere mixed with the delirious sense of seeing history being made.

This is what one sees in this image, a piece of world history, a poignant and earth-shaking moment, the culmination of a great struggle in which, for once, it seemed that good had finally triumphed. The knowledge of everything that lies behind this image makes it breathtaking. I think there are few South Africans (or any other citizens of the world) who could stand before it and not, for at least a moment, be moved and humbled.

The photographic record is a remarkable thing for in the background we see the future that was. Behind Mandela awaiting his turn to cast his vote is our current and controversial president, Jacob Zuma.

That which was merely an interesting detail several years ago, now seems placed by fate. This is the magic of photography in its relationship to time. The image is never finite, complete and total in itself; it is a fragment of the actual, linked firmly to the past and the future, and its fascination and value only increase.