Xhosa Woman Carrying a Calabash

George Milwa Mnyalaza Pemba

Oil on Canvas Board
45.5 x 35.5cm
Signed: "M Pemba" (Lower/Right)
Dated: 1958


Verso:                Titled:       “Xhosa Woman Carrying a Calabash”

                           Label:        The Sanderling Gallery

Exhibited:          Johannesburg.  Graham’s Fine Art Gallery.  16 July – 16 September 2009.  Imaging and  Imagining: South African Art c.1896 – 2008”.

Illustrated:         Graham’s Fine Art Gallery. 2009. Imaging and Imagining: South African Art c.1896 – 2008. Graham’s Fine Art Gallery, Johannesburg. p. 154 & 155


When appraising a painting such as Xhosa Woman carrying a Calabash, it must be kept in mind that Pemba was urban born and bred, and the product of a Christian, middle-class upbringing.  As such, his interest in traditionalist African lifestyles was motivated by a complex blend of nostalgia, pride in an African heritage that had to remainlargely unattainable and mysterious, and the alienation typically experienced by the black modernist urban intellectual in Union and apartheid South Africa. In 1944 Pemba applied for a loan from the Bantu Welfare Trust in order to undertake a tour of South Africa’s rural areas to explore his African heritage.  “Please give me a chance of seeing South Africa,” he wrote in his application, “of living for a short while with my people in the plains and bush of my country” (Feinberg, 1996: 20).  

Given this quintessentially Romantic idealisation of the ‘primitive’, it is not surprising that this painting reminds of the ‘native studies’ so prevalent among white painters (for example, those of Lucy Mullins, Dorothy Kay and Neville Lewis) of the early to mid 20thcentury.  Yet there are tell-talesigns that this young Xhosawoman is not, for Pemba, just a picturesque or exotic subject.  The unconventional composition pushes her very close to the picture plane, and the viewpointis low, so that we are compelled to look up at her monumental form.  Although she is not particularly individualised, and is thus made, in the tradition of ethnographic studies, to stand as generic representative of all Xhosa-speaking peoples, small details nonetheless betray a greater level of intimacy and sympathy than normally afforded the subject of ‘native studies’.  

Onesuch charming detail is the partially exposed head of a baby, tied to the woman’s back, peeringover her shoulder at the sky.  Pemba had a particular fondness for children and his oeuvre abounds with beautiful portraits of them.  Indeed, considering that Pemba and his second wife, Eunice Mndi, supported and raised no less than 20 children (of which only eight were his own) it comes as no surprise that his paintings often incorporate babies and children.  The glimpse in the lower left corner of rolling hills and trees stretched under a wide, blue sky, hints at an aptitude for landscape painting not often pursued in Pemba’s art. 

by Lize van Robbroeck

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