Clifford Mpai was by no means a frequent flyer, and definitely not a member of the jet set, but he did travel abroad on a few occasions, and so did his drawings. He visited London in 1987, 1988 and again in 1994; and in 1998 he travelled to Rotterdam to attend the opening of the exhibition “City on Paper”, hosted by the Netherlands Architecture Institute, where a number of his works were on show. His work (together with that of Karel Nel and Sheila Nowers) was also exhibited in Birmingham in 1991 in an exhibition titled “Three South African Artists: A contemplative view”. Thereafter his work was also exhibited in Illinois in 1994, and at Art First in London in 1995. But Mpai did almost all his travelling between two much more seemingly disparate worlds – the urban and the rural. As a migrant labourer in Johannesburg for 40 years – ten years as a machine operator and later messenger at the Modderfontein Dynamite Factory, and the last 30 as a waiter at Little Brenthurst in Parktown – he needed to travel to the deeply rural Phoffu Village, 48 km from Potgietersrus (now Mokopane) and 310 km north-east of Johannesburg, to visit his family over Christmas and bring home the bacon. The Mpai drawings selected for this exhibition include works directly inspired by his overseas visits; works which were exhibited abroad; and also works which illustrate how effortlessly Clifford Mpai bridges the apparent divide between the urban and the rural. Mpai returned to Phoffu Village after his retirement in 2002. He was born in 1937 but according to his identity document – for historical reasons it was only issued in 1990 – he was born in 1940. In 2020 he will therefore be celebrating his “official” 80th birthday, and amazingly he spent exactly half of those 80 years in Johannesburg and the other half in Phoffu Village. In celebration of this event a book titled Road to Luxemburg. The Clifford Mpai story will chronicle “the life of a quiet and remarkable man”, to quote the final words of Karel Nel’s opening address at an Mpai exhibition in Johannesburg in 1997.

Avril Gardiner

Liebrecht Gallery

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