Whitehot Magazine

A Tribute to South African Artist JFC Clarke

JFC Clarke, Corner Stone No. 5, 2007, pastel on paper.

By PETRA MASON, February 2021

Frederick Clarke writes:

Some years ago now, in the late 80's, my father would take me walking along a river close to our home. I was no more than 3 years old. His feet made the gravel crunch under his weight as he led us to an embankment of clay next to a little brook. There we would sit quietly, pulling chunks of clay from the moist earth, forming little animals and people. I remember the excitement of this new ability he was sharing, a feeling of unlimited potential, in realizing that we could create things, shape them into being, give them names, discuss, reform and merge them back into abstract handfuls of matter to leave by the water for the next visit to our neanderthal studio, this was the game - an early memory and lesson from dearly departed South African artist JFC Clarke, husband and father of four, who died from cancer at his home on 22 January 2021.

JFC Clarke was born in Harare, in 1946, soon thereafter relocating to Barberton with his parents and three sisters, and later Pretoria which became a home base for the remainder of his life. As many of his friends and family will know, John was a traveller both internally through his art-making, and externally throughout the expanses of Southern African bushveld. He had a particular love for Botswana and its people, and had many adventures into remote and wild places, where he often enjoyed sleeping under the stars, beside a fire on course hessian sacks surrounded by a few camping chairs, with the morning light revealing hyena footprints circling where he slept.

In many ways, the bushveld was his natural habitat. Urban life seemed to be a somewhat reluctant requirement to be maintained, if not endured, until the next opportunity to return to the thornveld with its birds, insects, animals, trees and stillness. This aspect of his life is of particular significance when exploring the expansive body of artwork he has left behind.

It is a fitting coincidence that his birthday coincides with the 1969 moon landing, a monumental moment in time that made a notable impression on his signature pastel landscapes. They are lit by an otherworldly and omnipresent light; compositions methodically shaped in pointillist earthen colours, forming everchanging and familiar elements of stones, poles, platforms and vessels, that evolved into his unique visual language, one that he distilled until his last days.

JFC Clarke, Still Life 31, 2018, pastel on paper.

JFC Clarke's artworks are almost entirely devoid of human figures, and yet traces of humanity, architecture, and culture are clear in the simple, yet profound kraal-like arrangements of objects and platforms - empty stages that hold the echoes of past and future beings, like moon ruins scattered with carefully arranged and crafted evidence of life. The stones and vessels shimmer like singing bowls, full of abstract allegory and meaning, open and safe for viewers to ponder and internally explore. His art alludes to a light-footed and respectful human occupancy within a natural world, unpolluted and free from destructive appetites and technological haste.   

This stoic and minimal essence is something he exuded in enigmatic abundance - akin to very low and high frequencies that are easily missed by the naked ear, existing outside of a more recognizable and melodic bandwidth. And yet, those who know him, will remember a quiet, kind, and powerful presence, a man who listened, and used his words with care and genuine intent.

JFC Clarke, Tourist Box, 2013, pastel on paper.

Besides his large body of work in the mediums of pastel, pencil, digital drawing, and printmaking, he also applied his passion and time to a long and detailed study of legendary lowveld outsider artist Nukain Mabuza, who died in 1981 - a man who JFC Clarke never met, but was deeply inspired and fascinated by - honouring him and his work in a publication he released in 2013 titled The Painted Stone Garden of Nukain Mabuza.

In 2008 he released a photographic book titled A Glimpse into Marabastad, documenting explorations and observations of a culturally eclectic and fascinating area of Pretoria during a troubled time in South Africa, with its rich and complex layers of personal stories and written history, captured in black and white film, and accompanied by a wealth of research. 

These are to mention a few areas of interest that John Clarke quietly and continually nurtured throughout his life, echoed in his collections of stone age tools, books, printing presses and natural artefacts gathered from adventures into the Kalahari and beyond.

In this increasingly fast, digitally refracted and complicated world we currently occupy, the frequency and meaning of Clarke's work can be both instantly recognized and appreciated, as well as easily missed. His artworks require a recalibration of focus and meditation, in order to unlock the windows and essence of his inner world - perhaps similar to turning off the loud mechanical hum of a Land Rover engine in order to appreciate the micro-sonics of the bushveld, and of course, the stillness.

JFC Clarke, Night Watch 1, 2013, charcoal pastel on paper.

In writing this, I recalled a quote from the Japanese warrior code Hagakure (meaning 'hidden by the leaves'), written by Yamamoto Tsunetomo. In some ways it echoes the way JFC Clarke quietly, passionately and consistently nurtured a deeply committed and often hidden love for his art-making practice, and the friends and family who he held in the highest regard, who will sorely miss his unique and wonderful presence.

Taken from the short chapter "Comrades of Smoke:"

..."I have determined that the highest form of love is a love that is hidden within the heart. When one has met the object of one's love and expressed one's love externally, the stature of the love is lowered. For a person to keep his love burning in his heart secretly until he dies of longing - that is the original meaning of love. There is a song that goes 'In the smoke that remains after someone dies of burning love, one can know that that's what it was: secret inner longings that were never revealed until the very end.'"

In John Clarke's death, we honour and celebrate the plume of smoke he leaves us; a lifetime of carefully drawn marks, his love and respect for nature, and heartfelt connections with family, friends and strangers, whose lives he has enriched with his presence (Frederick Clarke, January 23, 2021). WM


Petra Mason

Cultural historian and vintage photography book author published by Rizzoli New York. Founder Obscure Studio and ArtHit. Whitehot arts and culture contributor since 2016.

Photography by (c) Thekiso Mokhele / Obscure Studio


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