Clifford Mpai - colourful drawings and a colourful life. Depending on
whether you believe his mother or his grandfather, Clifford was born in 1937 or
1940 - near Pietersburg, now Polokwane. After leaving school at 14, he worked at
the Modderfontein Dynamite Factory and at a dry-cleaner in Sasolburg before
finding a job as a waiter at Little Brenthurst, the Oppenheimers' Parktown home.
In 1984, his talent was recognised by Strilli Oppenheimer who enrolled him for
weekly art classes at Bill Anslie's Johannesburg Art Foundation. Strilli's
encouragement, together with the classes, gave Clifford the confidence to become
When other black artists in the 1980s and 1990s were producing political
works, Clifford specialized in pencil and crayon drawings of garden landscapes
and of the suburbs surrounding Brenthurst. His style was often to draw from an
angled or aerial perspective and, according to Karen McKerron, to create a world
of structured fantasy. His observation of light shadow, outline, flattened forms
and detail created an almost soundless world, in which he combined his urban
surroundings with those of his rural upbringing. He changed the scale too,
rather than sticking to an accepted one-point view.
Notable exhibitions of Clifford's work have been held at the Karen McKerron
Gallery in 1988, at the Standard Bank Gallery in 1997, at Tokara Winery (curated
by Julia Meintjes) in 2007, and a retrospective called "Two Worlds in Four
Decades" at the Liebrecht Gallery in Somerset West in 2014.
These days, while his work is represented in public, corporate and private
collections, Clifford is happily retired. He's back where he started, in Phoffu
Village just outside Polokwane, still recording the changing world around him in
his rural home environment, in lead and coloured pencil.
Julia Meintjes, Clifford Mpai and GT Ferreira at Tokara Winery
Clifford Mpai and Karen McKerron meeting up again after some time