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Struik Lifestyle

@ Sunday Times Books LIVE

Peter Clarke Celebrated at the Launch of Listening to Distant Thunder by Elizabeth Rankin and Philippa Hobbs

Elizabeth Rankin and Philippa Hobbs

A remarkable book deserves a remarkable party, especially when the book is a re-issue by Fernwood Press of an earlier publication with a fascinating tale in its own right. Iziko’s Rust en Vreugd museum was the perfect spot for the launch of Listening to Distant Thunder: The Art of Peter Clarke by Elizabeth Rankin and Philippa Hobbs.

Originally published by Standard Bank, the 500 copies printed in support of a curated exhibition in May 2011 soon sold out. Art lovers eager to know more about the late Peter Clarke, one of South Africa’s foremost artists, clamoured to buy the book at the exhibition, although it was never available through book shops to a wider audience, until now.

Friends and family of Peter ClarkeListening to Distant ThunderSteve Connolly welcomed a terrific turnout comprising Clarke’s friends and family, the photographer George Hallett and poet James Matthews, as well as local art lovers and book lovers. He said it was a celebration of a great South African artist, poet, writer and teacher, who was also a gentle, sensitive man.

Connolly recalled returning to South Africa with his wife in 2011, after a stint of living in the UK. When he saw Clarke’s exhibition at the Iziko South African National Gallery (it appeared later at the Standard Bank Gallery in Johannesburg) he was greatly moved by the work. Publishing this book was a labour of love and a series of happy coincidences. He praised the authors for their fascinating text and the selection and layout of Clarke’s beautiful images.

“Our whole approach with this project is that we want Peter Clarke to be a secret no longer, his name known only in the Cape Peninsula, in small informed artistic elite. We hope that by bringing this book back to life we can increase his profile, bringing his stature and reputation into its rightful place in the broader community,” Connolly said.

The first item on the programme was a poetry performance by Clarke’s niece, Michelle October. She had composed “Still Life with Artificial Eye” in memory of her uncle. This somewhat irreverent take on the more personal details of his life was much enjoyed by those in the audience who knew and loved Clarke. Her second poem, “Population Explosion”, explored the harsher realities of his life, told with a keenly observed eye.

Rankin, who flew in from New Zealand to celebrate the launch, recalled the origins of her experience of the artist’s enormous talent. As a co-curator of an exhibition entitled “Printmaking in the Transforming South Africa”, which took place in 1997 for the National Arts Festival in Grahamstown, she came into contact with some of the lesser known printmakers working in the country – in particular black artists who had fallen below the radar.

Elizabeth Rankin, George Hallett and Philippa Hobbs“At that time we uncovered the consummate artistry of Clarke as we did the early research for the exhibition’s brochure. It was just amazing to find a man who had ploughed the furrow all on his own and produced such amazing work,” Ranking said. This was what led to the awareness that they really needed an artist’s biography dedicated to his life and work.

Rankin spoke of the heartbreaking news of Clarke’s death, which was mercifully peaceful. It posed a substantial challenge to them as writers. She reflected on the need to rewrite the book: “Changing the narrative from the present to the past tense was a most painful process,” she said.

Hobbs shared her recollections of working with the artist, and in particular the acrylic painting, “Anxiety”, that started her own research and writing process. “I was so drawn to a work done in 1966, that I decided to start there. It was done when he was still living in Simon’s Town, in the era just before forced removals. We’re looking at 1963 to 1970, that encapsulates the mood of the time. Peter said that people knew there was a distant rumble of disaster and trauma on the horizon. There was a lot of contestation and argument with authorities and people were horrified at the prospect of forced removals from Simon’s Town. Peter said there was a listlessness and passivity about the people,” she said.

Hobbs spent many hours in the Simon’s Town Museum, trying to work out the history of this traumatic era. She said that Clarke had depicted the time with irony and humour. “Those who knew him remember him as a man who reflected deeply on the time. He was also a man to see the human side, even the comical side. When he spoke of the trauma, he also told funny stories. He remembered a policeman, Tarzan Jacobs, who had a lot of henchmen. When they got hold of Peter, he knew he was a ‘gonner’ as the police van screeched to a halt.

“Tarzan started to rough Peter up. They picked through his pockets and saw his address book. He saw so many names he recognised, famous artists. He asked Peter about it and Tarzan then explained that he was also an artist. They started talking about art. In that moment, they were able to meet as artists. This was the power of Peter Clarke’s life and work. He humanised the people he met.”

Following the engaging talk by both the authors, Clarke’s lifelong friend George Hallett took the microphone. He recalled their invitation to the home of Jan Rabie and Marjorie Wallace which was interrupted by a visit from the police. Wallace hid them under the bed as one of her friends removed her clothes, except for her knickers. “We saw the boots from under the bed and the policeman suddenly departed saying, ‘O jammer‘ at the sight of a half-naked lady.”

Hallett, recalling the ambience in which they were brought up, said Clarke’s house in Sondersteen was our Harlem Renaissance. We listened to Abdullah Ibrahim and Beethoven. One of our friends picked up Mozart’s flute concerto. Peter said, ‘Be careful! That’s my entire record collection!’ He paid tribute to his friend in glowing terms, as did poet, James Matthews with a performance of his own poetry.

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Liesl Jobson tweeted live from the event using the hashtag #livebooks:


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