Biographical sketch

In many respects Clifford Matshweni Mpai’s life is every bit as colourful as his drawings. He was born in 1937, according to his mother; in 1940, according to his grandfather. And on 6 September 1940, according to his identity document. Mother always knows best, so 1937 it will be. Near Pietersburg, now Polokwane.

Mpai was forced to leave school after Standard 6. In 1961 he was employed at the Modderfontein Dynamite Factory as a machine operator, from 1971 to 1973 he worked for a dry-cleaning concern in Sasolburg, and in 1973 he found employment as a waiter with Harry and Bridget Oppenheimer at Little Brenthurst, their Parktown home. In 1984, his talent was recognised by Strilli Oppenheimer and for two years he spent one day a week taking art classes at Bill Anslie’s Johannesburg Art Foundation.

In a letter to McKerron dated 4 January, 2002 he indicated that he is “going home (retirement)” after 30 years’ service, and in a second letter he reported that “I am at home on my retirement. I came home on the 27th of December, 2002.” This home is in Phoffu Village just outside Polokwane (previously Pietersburg), where Clifford Mpai is still recording the changing world around him in his rural home environment, in coloured pencil.


1988: Karen McKerron Gallery, Bryanston, 6-24 February
1988: Karen McKerron Gallery, September
1990: Karen McKerron Gallery
1992: Karen McKerron Gallery
1994: Karen McKerron Gallery
1995: Karen McKerron Gallery
1997: “A Decade in Two Worlds”, Standard Bank Gallery, Johannesburg (a retrospective exhibition celebrating the 10 years
since his first exhibition in the Karen McKerron Gallery)
1997: “Perceptions”, Karen McKerron Art Gallery
1998: Karen McKerron Gallery
2000: Karen McKerron Gallery
2007: Fine Art at Tokara, Stellenbosch (curated by Julia Meintjes Fine Art)
2014: “Two Worlds in Four Decades”, Liebrecht Gallery, Somerset West (a retrospective exhibition presenting his work in four decades; 1984 – 2014)

Participation in group exhibitions locally and abroad

1988: International Art and Antiques Fair, Sandton Sun Convention Centre
1988: Birmingham
1988: London
1989: AA Life Vita “Art Now 1”, Johannesburg Art Gallery
1994-1995: “Displacements: South African Works on Paper, 1984-1994”, Mary and Leigh Block Gallery, Northwestern
University, Illinois (curated by the South African National Gallery)
1995: “We the Peoples – United for the Global Environment”, Pretoria Art Museum
1996: “Local Colour: Shopping in Johannesburg”, University of the Witwatersrand
1998: “City on paper”, part of “South African Seasons” hosted by the Netherlands Architecture Institute, Rotterdam

Public collections

South African National Gallery
Johannesburg Art Gallery
Victoria & Albert Museum, London
University of the Witwatersrand Art Galleries
Durban Art Gallery
Tatham Art Gallery, Pietermaritzburg
William Humphreys Art Gallery, Kimberley
Carnegie Art Gallery, Newcastle

Corporate collections

Anglo American Corporation
Barclays Bank
First Graphics
Rand Merchant bank
Standard Bank of South Africa

All data confirmed with the gallery records and correspondence (Karen McKerron Gallery), Mpai’s identity document, and numerous conversations with the artist during his visit to the Cape in 2014 (19 – 26 October).