The exhibition, A Speaking Silence, opens in the Liebrecht Gallery in Somerset West, on Thursday August 4.
In 1961, the magistrate in Pietersburg (now Polokwane) issues a permit to enable Clifford Mpai to travel to Johannesburg, and he starts his working career as a machine operator at the Modderfontein Dynamite Factory just outside the city. He lives in Room No 255 in the men’s hostel.
Mpai works there for 10 years, and then finds employment as a waiter in the Little Brenthurst household in Parktown in 1973. In 2002, at the age of 65, he retires after 30 years of waiting at table, answering the phone and other duties; and returns to his place of birth – the deeply rural Phoffu Village, 58km from Polokwane.
In the tranquil surroundings of the Brenthurst gardens he finds the inspiration to resume a childhood passion – drawing in lead pencil – without those around him, and also those at home knowing what this “closet artist” is doing.
Many years later, in 1984, his employer recognises the talent of an artist with a unique vision. He attends art classes once a week at Bill Ainslie’s Johannesburg Art Foundation, but after a year decides to go it alone in order to express himself in his own way.
In 1988, at the age of 51, his first solo exhibition is presented in Johannesburg, followed by a further seven solo shows in the Karen McKerron Gallery up to the year 2000.
A retrospective exhibition celebrating the 10 years since his first exhibition is presented in the Standard Bank Gallery in 1997. In 1991 his work, alongside that of Karel Nel and Sheila Nowers, is exhibited in Birmingham in an exhibition titled Three South African artists: a contemplative view, favourably received. A review the London-based Arts Review refers to “a strange silence” in his work.
In 1994 his work tours America in a group show curated by the South African National Gallery, and in 1999 he accompanies the Minister of Education to Rotterdam to see his work in an exhibition titled City on Paper. South African Seasons – presented by the Netherlands Architectural Institute. Mpai’s works are housed in almost all major public and many corporate collections, and his drawings are also in the collection of the Victoria & Albert Museum in London.
Over the years Mpai has been viewed as someone bridging the divide, as an important bridge builder, and his drawings of rural and urban environments have been exhibited side by side.
A Speaking Silence is the first exhibition to focus on his urban work only. A publication titled Clifford and the Dynamite Factory will also be available during the exhibition – whch is on till the end of August. For more information contact Avril Gardiner at 021 852 8030 or 082 682 5710.