George Pemba began his career as an artist at the University of Forth Hare and later at Rhodes University. Here, he made a name for himself as a watercolour painter, developing this style throughout the 30’s and 40’s,. However, Pemba soon abandoned this style and, under the guidance of Gerard Sekoto, focused instead on oil painting. In the exhibition catalogue, Revisions, Hayden Proud explains that while Pemba followed Sekoto’s advice and dedicated the rest of his painterly years to documenting township scenes, he — like Irma Stern and Gerhard Bhengu — was also inspired by images of ‘native’ and rural South Africa.
This particular work is an invaluable representation of the vast and diverse artistic skill to which South Africa is a host. In the painting, Pemba achieves a psychological feat as he captures the resignation, humiliation and enforced subservience of these older black community members waiting in line for their passes. Indeed, the only symbol of hope or detachment from this political reality, solidified by the looming presence of the police figure in black, is the small child in red turned backwards away from the scene before him.
“Waiting in the Queue” is thus a prime example of the potential of the artist to evoke both the psychology of his subject as well as the socio-historical atmosphere of the time. This is a pivotal work in the South African art historical canon for a number of reasons: on the one hand, the work was created by a black artist who, at the height of his artistic career, was marginalised within the greater narrative of art history. Even today, black artists are notably absent from the art historical canon.
Furthermore, although there is a drive towards identifying these absences, historical black South African artists still lack a great deal of exposure and support from the private art world. Thus, writing about, documenting and buying the work of artists such as Pemba is not only an absolute necessity in terms of broadening South Africa’s artistic discourse but a social responsibility too.