Fred Clarke at Math Room, Arts on Main. Pic: Scott Smith
Although it wasn’t the San Bushmen or Africa that originally inspired Fred Clarke’s search for what he considers to be something more pure than modern civilisation, it is the people of western Botswana and their art which he has used as his medium to bring the message to city folk, who may have just forgotten what it is like to be a hunter-gatherer.
Clarke, who lives and works in Joburg, says that the time of preserving the San people as a “primitive culture” is over and the time for respectful and equal inclusion is now.
The result within the Arts on Main space of brick, mortar and steel is an array of colourful prints and black and white sketches, all with their own depth and representation of where they, the San, come from – what they feel, and how they see themselves in the broader world.
Clarke reminds me that the eight artists who are part of this show are the first generation after the last of the hunter-gatherers and much of their work is a reference of their life and an exploration of what art is for them. Showing this kind of work in such a far away place helps illustrate “the importance of how this art deals with their changing life”.
The art was gathered from resident artists in a place called Kuru Art Centre. A “rough, tired place like the wild west” says Clarke, in D’kar, western Botswana.
A lot of the artists are the elder women in the group, but there is one particular younger artist, Jan John, who stands out from the rest. “There isn’t much else up there for them,” said Clarke.
“It is an honour to include these artists as contemporaries.”
When asked to elaborate, he said: “As a culture they are ancient and I want to bring that life into the contemporary now. It is all about dialogue. It is not a retrospective show, it is about what is happening now.”
And to an extent Clarke does pull that off. The Math Room space is full of natural light, with cement and stone floors and rusting beams of steel meld nicely with the wooden frame and the surprisingly gifted and fine artwork on display.
The visuals are decidedly African and, if you look a little closer, you find influences of Christianity, a residue from the missionaries who run the art centre. But if you look a little deeper, you see the history and the longing for their history of the ancient culture that is theirs.
Clarke is quick to point out that “African exhibitions have too much connotation of charity – this show is just about the work”, and what it means to the artist.
View it at the Math Room at the Arts on Main complex, east of Joburg, just shy of the rising sun.
While the exhibition runs only for a short time, from April 14 to May 6, Clarke says the response has been positive, with many a character passing through the exhibition and commenting on the depth of the pieces.
The majority of the sale proceeds go to the artist and the art centre.
The San artwork is complemented by the work of Soweto artists Bongani Khumalo, Lehlohonolo Mkhasibe and Virginia Ramovha.