George Milwa Mnyalaza Pemba

(1912 – 2001)

“I aim to paint my people as I see them. I also like to depict beautiful and dignified mountains, rivers and landscapes of South Africa.” George Pemba.

One of South Africa’s pioneer black painters, George Milwa Mnyaluza Pemba, was born in Hill’s Kraal in Korsten, Port Elizabeth on the 2 April 1912, the second youngest of six children to parents Titus and Rebecca. His father was a foreman at a shoe factory and an elder of their Presbyterian church, whilst his mother’s side of the family were craftsmen, dressmakers and tailors. As a child Pemba’s father encouraged him to draw and to paint, which he did in their family home, creating portraits from his father’s photographs. He continued to concentrate on portraits for his career and looked closely at depicting the rural and urban genre, especially that of the Eastern Cape where he spent most of his life.

Pemba was trained as a teacher, but worked for the Lovedale Printing Press and as a clerk in Port Elizabeth. To make a better income he then worked as a grocer from the 1950s to the late 1970s, all the while continuing with his artwork. As with the majority of rural schools, art and drawing was never taught as a subject and was quickly dismissed by teachers and the board of education during this period. Pemba later briefly attended the University at Fort Hare and the University of Rhodes, where he developed his skills in watercolour, although he remained mainly self-taught in the other mediums he used. Pemba’s exposure to oil paintings was from looking at mainly European modernist works from his teachers’ books, which he began to collect for himself. The artists who he admired most were French Impressionists, including Renoir, Monet, Toulouse Lautrec, Degas and Gauguin. He found himself 50 years after these artists applying, sometimes erratically, the techniques and approaches that they had used, but in a different cultural context entirely.

Pemba’s depictions of life scenes expose his great interest in local life and local people and a great sense of narrative is present within these works. Yet, to look at this genre as a simple ‘record’ of township life does not allow for the complicated constructions of a historical context to be formed. Pemba’s varied borrowing and knowledge of subject matter, including his portraits, forms a personal and ambiguous presentation of experiments that he undertook, which results in a style that is difficult to categorise.

George Pemba’s work illustrates a universal quality and timelessness that has secured his prominence within South African historical art. The deliberation of composition and use of colour in his works create a richness and intensity that is a reflection of the artist himself. Through the recognition he has received in the last decade, Pemba is considered one of South Africa’s most prominent artists and places him in the foreground of South African art.

1912

Born Korsten, Port Elizabeth, Cape Province (now Eastern Cape), South Africa

1924

Won a Grey Scholarship to Peterson School, took strong interest in the art books in theschool library

1928

Entered and won and art completion at a local agricultural show

Late 1930s

His works were accepted for an exhibition of “Negro and Bantu Art’ in Port Elizabeth, following this, Pemba exhibited regularly until shortly before his death

1948

Pemba turned professional in the late 1940s with his first solo exhibition in East London

1979

Awarded an honorary Masters’ Degree from the University of Fort Hare for his contribution to South African art.

2001

Died in Port Elizabet

1931 – 1935

Enrolled at the Lovedale Teacher’s Training College

1931

Watercolour classes under Ethel Smyth for two weeks at the University of Fort Hare

1937

A short course at Rhodes University Fine Arts Department under Professor Austin Wintermoore

1947

Gained a scholarship from the Fort Hare African Trust

1952

Two-week period of study under Maurice van Essche in Cape Town

1928

Group Exhibition, Feathermarket Hall, Port Elizabeth

1945

Annual Exhibition, Eastern Province Society of Arts and Crafts, Port Elizabeth

1965

Participated in the Eastern Province Arts Association

1975

First Solo exhibition, Little Gallery, Port Elizabeth

1979

Participated in the Contemporary African Art Exhibition which toured South Africa

1986

Participated in ‘Historical Perspectives of Black Art in South Africa’, Alliance Française, Pretoria

1988

The Neglected Tradition,Johannesburg Art Gallery

1989

Exhibition, Monument Gallery, Grahamstown

1991

Solo Exhibition, Everard Read Gallery, Johannesburg

1992

Solo Exhibition, Everard Read Gallery, Johannesburg

1993

Watercolour Exhibition, Highbury Gallery, Port Elizabeth

1996

Retrospective Exhibition, Iziko South African National Gallery, Cape Town; Johannesburg Art Gallery; Nelson Mandela Metropolitan Art Museum, Port Elizabeth

Public Collections – International

  • The World Bank Collection, Washington,DC

Galleries & Museums

  • IzikoSANational Gallery, Cape Town
  • Sanlam Art Gallery, Bellville
  • De Beers Centenary Art Gallery
  • Johannesburg Art Gallery
  • Tatham Art Gallery, Pietermaritzburg
  • Nelson Mandela Metropolitan Art Museum, Port Elizabeth

Universities

  • Cory Library for Historical Research, Rhodes University, Grahamstown
  • University of Fort Hare
  • Killie Campbell Collections, University of Natal, Durban

Private Collections

  • United States of America
  • South Africa

1924

Grey Scholarship to Paterson Secondary School, Port Elizabeth

1937

First prize at May Esther Bedford Art Competition, Fort Hare

1979

Awarded an honorary Masters’ Degree from the University of Fort Hare for his contribution to South African art.

1998

Honorary Doctorate, University of Port Elizabeth

2004

The South African Government bestowed upon the late George Pemba the Order of Ikhamanga in Gold for his pioneering and exceptional contribution to the development of the art of painting and literature

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