Peter E Clarke in conversation with Michael Stevenson
Essay from Fanfare

FAN - 1. A device for creating a current of air or a breeze, especially: a. A machine using an electric motor to rotate thin, rigid vanes in order to move air, as for cooling. b. A collapsible, usually wedge-shaped device made of a light material such as silk, paper, or plastic. 2. A machine for winnowing. 3. Something resembling an open fan in shape: a peacock's fan.
        - An ardent devotee; an enthusiast. (Short for FANATIC)

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, 2000

Michael Stevenson:        What was the sequence of events in creating this fan series, to be exhibited in 2004, the year you turn 75? And how long have you been working on the series?

Peter Clarke:        I certainly had no idea the series would be as extensive as it has turned out to be. Neither did I think it would take as long as it has. I have been working on the series since 1996, whenever I had time to do what I wanted to do. I don't remember the first one - I fell in love with the idea of variations for a visual series in the same way that classical composers' music often takes the form of a theme with variations. In FANFARE the format remains the same but the appearance of each piece changes with the different rhythm of each character.

My first attempts at collage were in the late 1950s when I came across artists such as Kurt Schwitters (see no 75) and Hannah Höch, who were active just prior to Hitler's domination of Germany and who combined photographic material with other collage elements in their work. I also discovered a long time ago the American artist Romare Bearden whose work I have always admired. Sam Nhlengethwa (no 90), who is a friend of mine, also likes his work. I remember when Sam first showed me photographs of collages he'd done I commented about the influence of Bearden. Sam admitted this. The next time I saw Sam's work I said to him, 'They don't look like Beardens anymore. They look like Nhlengethwas.'

M S      What guided your choice of characters? I see that individuals dead and alive, real and imaginary are included, and among them are artists as well as historical, biblical and literary figures.

PC      In this series I bring characters onto the stage of my mental theatre. I had the idea of designing a fan to suggest each particular individual, and under the fans designed for them, they put in brief appearances. Sometimes they even utter words, make brief statements. Sometimes I put thoughts into their minds, words into their mouths. I suppose that after many years of reading, certain characters stand out - they acquire a kind of permanent presence. However, I do not forget the ones in the background - as in a group photograph, the people in front create the immediate memory but the people behind have a presence of their own. Certain characters are always there even though they have taken back seats. Similarly with this series, the characters who were in the front row of my mind at a particular moment inspired fans. There was nothing systematic about it at all - as certain characters came to mind, when they - you could say - stood up and stepped forward, they engaged my interest.

M S      Accompanying the 'fans' are a few paragraphs of prose that incorporate the characters' own writings, or your recollections, or conversations with them. Thus, these works bring together two strands of your career: text and image, poet and painter, which are integral to each other. How do you see this seamless integration of these two facets of your creativity?
PC      I have illustrated the writings of other people and done illustrations for children's books but I have never really had to illustrate my own work! This is an interesting process because it affords me the opportunity to illustrate in a different way. Sometimes I've started with words, sometimes with images. Sometimes the fan with words, sometimes the words with a fan. It all depended on which medium I started with.

As I considered certain character-actors - and this is theatre, in a way - designing for each one presented me with particular individual challenges. Interesting thoughts and ideas came to mind. Some solutions were quite simple, but achieving simplicity can sometimes be complicated. For instance, subtlety was required for the N P van Wyk Louw poem (no 3) as well as for the comment about Basho's well-used fan after his travels (no 20).

In several instances I wanted to express thoughts about space - a preoccupation, incidentally, that runs through much of the work I've done during the course of my life as a creative person. Characters as varied as Helen Martins of Nieu Bethesda (no 85), Miles Davis in concert (no 48), St George (no 22), the Little Match Seller (no 28), Jackson Pollock (no 76), Whistler's Mother (no 70), the Lappiesman (no 84) and Christo and his wrapped fan (no 83) required a certain kind of focusing to hold their different presences. Creating their fans was like improvising with space and spaces in different ways. Looking at Eva/Krotoa (no 44) too, we see that she moves between the pages, written and unwritten, of South African history. Two women approaching history in yet another way, though from vastly contrasting positions in society, are A Lady of the Night (& Day) (no 32) and The Duchess (no 31). The first of these two characters was inspired partly by a family friend, in fact a nice, ordinary, respectable young woman who seemed destined to work in a lingerie factory in Woodstock for ever and ever. She described her job as, 'In onse department maak ons net die gusters1 van die broekies'. Alas! Years later I read an article about prostitution in Australia, in which a bored cashier checking out groceries in a supermarket suddenly saw the light of day when she realized she was 'sitting on a fortune'. Wallis Warfield Simpson used a similar technique for getting somewhere in this world.

I was a little boy in primary school at the time - the 1930s - and was crazy about reading, even the newspapers when nobody was looking. I remember how fascinated my parents and others living in the ghetto in Simon's Town were with the drama of the Prince of Wales and his floozy Mrs Simpson - all of which goes to prove that, celebrity or peasant, under the skin we are all the same.

MS      Looking through FANFARE, it is immediately apparent that these are private thoughts and contemplative mindscapes, a rarity in this age when most art is laden with references to other contemporary art. Am I right in thinking these are very personal reflections on a long life of interesting encounters, both real and imaginary, rather than responses to the world of art out there?

The wonderfully interesting thing about the FANFARE project has been that I have kept company with a whole variety of absolutely fascinating characters, not one of them dull. Funny, sad, intriguing, amazing, ridiculous, even dead (Lazarus (no 17)), but never dull. Maybe that is because at times, in thinking about them and allowing them an existence of sorts, I've given shape to their thoughts. I've taken the liberty of putting words into their mouths, as so often we read of characters in history books without actually hearing the sound of their voices. I've often wondered, 'But what did they say at the time?' Now I don't wonder anymore.

MS      You work in an isolated environment and seldom come through to the city to see exhibitions or partake of the merry-go-round of the art world. You quietly make art, in a sense for yourself, and not consciously with an audience in mind. You have always been modest about your work and, as a result, your work is not widely known outside Cape Town art circles. As you look back on your life as an artist, would you have had it any other way?

PC      I have always enjoyed having space for myself - having that space in which to work quietly - and I certainly do not like performing for other people. I make work firstly for myself but with the idea that other people will need to see it in order to make it whole or complete. I have enjoyed living out of town because otherwise one can be socially consumed by activities and events which have their own demands and present problems with which one is not really able to cope. It is nice to use the excuse that I am not the owner of a car and I live too far out of town and therefore cannot serve on any committee - there are, besides, people much younger. But I notice even that excuse doesn't prevent people with persistence from wanting me to serve on some committee or other.

Regarding your comment about my work not being widely known outside Cape Town art circles, it is interesting that years ago the Cape Town art critic Eldred Green commented that my work was better known outside South Africa than inside the country. I have often exhibited  internationally in one-man and group exhibitions without seeking newspaper publicity every time this happened. I think what is good about my situation is that, living out of town, I see only those people who I want to come and see me. They make these pilgrimages, which are quite funny at times. Years ago people came to visit me and they wanted to have a look around the house - crazy, I have only a tiny space - and they behaved as if they were in a house museum and touched things and looked around inquisitively. What I should do is print a catalogue of the bits and pieces in my house and have these items numbered. I can then sell catalogues to visitors, and autograph these as they leave!

In 1952 an article about me appeared in the Cape Times under the heading DOCKS WORKER PLANS CAREER IN ART. I was 23 years old. Of course I wanted to make a name for myself no matter how long it took. But I wanted to be an artist, not so much to be famous as to be happy (see Great Artist, no 91).

MS      These works can truly be called 'mixed media': they bring together collage, painting, sketching and paper-making, all of which have been aspects of your work over the years. This series takes this mixing up of media in its stride.

PC      I receive a lot of junk mail and at first I thought of returning it to the senders. I decided however that this was pointless and realized I could make use of it in the form of collage. Regarding the handmade paper, unfortunately I don't make paper myself. I love handmade paper in all its varied forms and am greatly attracted to it because paper-making is another art form.

As far as clutter is concerned, if you never get rid of stuff you eventually find yourself surrounded by so much of it that, at times, you do need to spring clean in order to start thinking clearly. And making collages is part of cleaning out the clutter. I enjoy walking into sparsely furnished spaces simply because it allows me to think clearly, and when you have space you can appreciate the presence of other things much more easily. I would love to work towards having that space but habits, they say, die hard and clutter will continue because I will always have a passion for making collages.

The thought occurs to me that I am, in fact, recycling my clutter, not getting rid of it. It is taking on a different, interesting, attractive form. Perhaps that idea should go out into the world: recycle stuff and make our environment more attractive.

MS      In this series you have shifted the Victorian tradition of decorating fans, which was mostly an upper middle class pastime of the leisured woman, into a contemporary context with no utilitarian function. Have you paged through books on this tradition or seen many of these antique fans?

PC     Of course, I've seen fans here and there and in art books and on display in museums I've visited in various countries in Europe and in the USA. But no, I have not actually made a study of fans or studied the design of fans. I remember odd ones my mother obtained somewhere or other. They were partly damaged and she hoped that someone - perhaps I - could repair them sometime. Unfortunately this task was beyond me.

The fan, for me, represents an object that has a very definite shape, appearance (sometimes plain, sometime absolutely striking) and even quiet presence. Interestingly too, it can often be fragile.

MS      The FANFARE series is spirited, playful and humorous which is refreshing in our angst-ridden society, particularly when one thinks in terms of the lingering expectations of appropriate subjects for an artist whose opportunities were restricted by the years of apartheid.

PC      I felt that even during the darkest years of apartheid at times there were things to laugh about - funny, ridiculous, in fact even hysterical things. As for the politicians - if only they could have seen themselves as we saw them - not only what they looked like - they would have sought psychiatric help in order to be happy. Admittedly, at times I have been quite miserable because it is the most natural thing in the world.

These are stories in our history that continue to be sad. For instance, everyone is familiar with that famous image by the photographer Sam Nzima of the dying Hector Petersen being carried in the arms of a youth while his horrified and hysterical sister runs alongside them. The mother of the brave young hero (who is the subject of one of my fans, no 52), interviewed in a Women's Day broadcast one day, said she had absolutely no idea where her son was, what had happened to him or whether he was dead or alive. After the student uprising, like many other young people involved in the struggle, he fled the country. Her son Mbuyisa Makhubu sent her a message from Nigeria a long time ago and then there was nothing. She was desperate to find out what had happened to him and had hoped that the ANC would be of assistance, but she was disappointed as she said they did absolutely nothing to look into the disappearance of her son. As he forms part of a photographic image that has come to be regarded as an historical icon, this brave young man, his story incomplete, is forever seen walking into space. His mother, by the way, died recently without ever finding out what happened to her son. That story is tragic and incomplete. There is a loose ending. It makes me feel sad. I wish that for that mother's sake the story had ended differently. So there are times when I can't help being serious in my work.

But the child in me has accompanied the adult that I am into old age. So, as far as I am concerned, it is essential to be honest and to be irreverent at times and to have a sense of humour as well. And at certain times sacred cows need to be slaughtered.

2003 Michael Stevenson. All rights reserved.