Clifford Charles: where does critical engagement lead?

November 2006 -

Visual artist Clifford Charles (1965) is always productive, no matter where he is. His work period with the Thami Mnyele foundation in Amsterdam has ended. Charles is back in Johannesburg.

The problems involved in art from the "South" are inescapable as I view his work. It is beautiful, but does not appear to be 'African'. His work used to, when Charles was still being figurative. He painted male bodies and masks with expressive brush strokes; he portrayed the raw tribal drama of the black continent on canvas. Political artistic engagement from afar has conquered a place in the international art market. But artists are obstinate.


Series,2001(ink on paper)size 34x50cm

Today Charles often uses black ink, on paper. He entices abstract landscapes from thick shiny drops, dull geometric shapes, running stripes and thinly scratched lines. The ink is pitch black, or watery, woolly or tight. The fragmented shapes are held together by the remaining white of the paper.

His unique artistic signature used to be his trademark. Now he removes the traces of his ego from his work. "I am searching for a new space that is free of ideology," he explains. "I have turned my view inward." What triggered that search? "When the reclaimed 'freedom' in South Africa proved to be just a different system. Everything is new in 'crazy' South Africa, and then nostalgia is tempting," he says. Charles' ink drawings give evidence of an independent artistic path. And he is still searching for the answer to his primary question: "where does critical engagement lead?"

There is still little demand for work by artists with a 'different' cultural background if that background is not literally expressed in the work. Isn't it time for us to let go of our preconditioned expectations and allow ourselves to be surprised by what art decides to bring us?

The Thami Mnyele Foundation promotes exchange of art and culture between Africa and The Netherlands. For this purpose it makes working space available to African artists. In 2006 Clifford Charles worked there for three months. Besides he is a member of the artistic team of the Afrovibes Festival which took place last November.