The art of moun­taineer­ing

Few know artist Peter Clarke was fond of moun­tain ram­bling, writes FARIEDA KHAN

Weekend Argus (Saturday Edition) - - FRONT PAGE -

MANY Capeto­ni­ans will have heard of Peter Clarke (1929-2014), an ac­claimed and ver­sa­tile lo­cal artist who achieved not only na­tional but global fame for his paint­ings and etch­ings of or­di­nary peo­ple, most of them poor and black, in ru­ral as well as ur­ban set­tings.

How­ever, not ev­ery­one who is aware of Clarke’s im­mense con­tri­bu­tion to South African art would know he was also a tal­ented poet and writer, with one of his short sto­ries even beat­ing that of nov­el­ist Richard Rive, in a com­pe­ti­tion held by Drum mag­a­zine in 1954. Fewer still are aware of Clarke’s abid­ing love of na­ture, of moun­tains and of moun­tain hik­ing.

Clarke was born in Si­mon’s Town, in an area known as Kloof, which was close to the moun­tain, be­low a water­fall.

Ac­cord­ing to Clarke: “We lived so close to the moun­tain that when you opened your eyes, the moun­tain was there”.

“The chil­dren of this com­mu­nity knew the moun­tain in­ti­mately, as it was not only their play­ground, but also the place where they reg­u­larly gath­ered wood to sup­ple­ment the wood their par­ents bought to fuel their stoves.

“On their moun­tain ram­blings, the chil­dren of Si­mon’s Town would also gather pine cones con­tain­ing ripe ker­nels and picked sweet, wild berries to eat.”

As Clarke grew older, he and his friends ven­tured fur­ther than the water­fall, ex­plor­ing and hik­ing over the moun­tain, in dif­fer­ent di­rec­tions. Clarke’s close child­hood re­la­tion­ship with the nearby moun­tains was very sim­i­lar to that of other chil­dren liv­ing in the poorer en­claves scat­tered through­out af­flu­ent Si­mon’s Town, as well as Dido Val­ley and Red Hill on its out­skirts.

The for­mer res­i­dents of these com­mu­ni­ties also have warm mem­o­ries of a child­hood lived close to na­ture, of moun­tain ram­bles with their par­ents or in groups of other chil­dren.

Clarke’s child­hood re­la­tion­ship to the nearby moun­tain in Si­mon’s Town was very sim­i­lar to that of the chil­dren of District Six, who had also en­joyed a close re­la­tion­ship with Devil’s Peak and ad­ja­cent Ta­ble Moun­tain, us­ing it as their play­ground and recre­ational area.

With a num­ber of scout­ing groups based in District Six, such as the Sea Scouts and First Cape Town Scouts, many young­sters in the District re­ceived their first taste of moun­taineer­ing through their scout­ing ac­tiv­i­ties.

This was also the case with Clarke who, to­gether with Rive, be­longed to the Sec­ond Cape Town Scouts as a child.

How­ever, while Rive was a mem­ber of the King’s Scouts, Clarke was a Rover, but both groups had the re­spon­si­bil­ity of look­ing af­ter the Glen, a na­ture area in Kloof Nek used by their scout groups.

As they grew up, Clarke’s and Rive’s lives took a very dif­fer­ent turn: while Rive was able to com­plete high school and in later life com­plete a univer­sity ed­u­ca­tion up to doc­toral level, Clarke was forced to leave high school af­ter only a year, due to his fam­ily’s strait­ened fi­nan­cial cir­cum­stances.

He be­came a painter’s as­sis­tant in the Si­mon’s Town docks, work­ing at the docks in var­i­ous ca­pac­i­ties for a num­ber of years. His cre­ativ­ity could not be sti­fled how­ever, and he wrote po­etry and painted and sketched in his spare time. Dur­ing his lunch hour, Clarke was ei­ther buried in a book, or on the moun­tain­side, writ­ing and plan­ning his cre­ative works.

In 1955 Clarke and Rive met again and amid the dis­cus­sion of their in­di­vid­ual cre­ative en­deav­ours, spoke about their mu­tual love of moun­tains. How­ever, while Rive was an en­thu­si­as­tic moun­tain climber, his fear­less­ness aris­ing out of his love of sport and keep­ing fit, Clarke was more of a moun­tain ram­bler, whose cre­ativ­ity was in­spired by the tran­quil­lity and beauty of na­ture. But trou­ble loomed ahead – in 1967 Si­mon’s Town was de­clared a white group area and Clarke’s fam­ily was sub­se­quently forced out to Ocean View, which was sit­u­ated over the moun­tains and sev­eral kilo­me­tres from Fish Hoek where the near­est public trans­port was lo­cated.

The area, which was orig­i­nally named “Slangkop” was re­named Ocean View, de­spite there be­ing no ocean close by, nor a view of it.

What there was though, was the sur­round­ing moun­tain­side, in the mid­dle of which Group Ar­eas evictees were dumped into a hastily con­structed dor­mi­tory town­ship.

Like the families re­moved from District Six and ma­rooned on the dis­tant Cape Flats, the peo­ple evicted from Si­mon’s Town were neg­a­tively im­pacted by be­ing forcibly up­rooted from the vi­brant so­cial, cul­tural and en­vi­ron­men­tal con­text they had lived in and held dear for gen­er­a­tions.

Clarke’s fam­ily was no ex­cep­tion, as his elderly par­ents were badly af­fected by the move. Clarke re­mem­bers that pe­riod as a tragedy not only for his par­ents, but for so many oth­ers, since the move re­sulted in the de­struc­tion of their com­mu­nity and a closeknit way of life.

For Clarke per­son­ally how­ever, the move to Ocean View also of­fered op­por­tu­ni­ties for him as an artist which he was quick to ex­ploit.

For one thing, the light was dif­fer­ent: in the Kloof in Si­mon’s Town, the sun dis­ap­peared be­hind the moun­tain very early in the af­ter­noons, whereas Ocean View re­ceived lots of sun­light due to its lo­ca­tion.

The dwelling his fam­ily was al­lo­cated (and in which he was to re­main for the rest of his life), was sit­u­ated di­rectly op­po­site an un­de­vel­oped moun­tain­ous area, mak­ing it con­ve­nient for Clarke and the friends who vis­ited him for braais to go for reg­u­lar walks. Of that pe­riod, Clarke re­mem­bers that, “I went up the moun­tain close to me and looked at the ocean, it was amaz­ing to see it spread out in the dis­tance”.

“I walked over the moun­tain in dif­fer­ent di­rec­tions with friends who came to visit me for braais… I found a lot of in­spi­ra­tion in the moun­tains as a young artist, walk­ing over the moun­tain, paint­ing land­scapes.”

Clarke viewed his move with am­biva­lence since, al­though there were ben­e­fits for him as an artist, he was highly aware the move had been forced upon an en­tire com­mu­nity for ide­o­log­i­cal rea­sons and noted: “We didn’t move when we felt like it – it would have been a dif­fer­ent story then… we had to move… it was not some­thing of our own choos­ing”.

Clarke was a true son of Cape Town: writ­ing, sculpt­ing, draw­ing and paint­ing what he saw through the eyes of an artist sen­si­tive to the po­lit­i­cal and cul­tural con­text of the com­mu­nity within which he was rooted. As an artist he has left a rich legacy for South Africans to ap­pre­ci­ate. Dr Khan is an in­de­pen­dent re­searcher with an in­ter­est in her­itage mat­ters.


Artist Peter Clarke, who died in 2014, was an en­thu­si­as­tic moun­tain ram­bler and na­ture lover.


Peter Clarke was born in Si­mon’s Town close to the moun­tain and few peo­ple are aware of his love of na­ture, of moun­tains and of moun­tain hik­ing.

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