Exhibition will be on display at the GFI Art Gallery
18 April – 3 June 2023, 30 Park Drive, Gqeberha
By Emma O’Brien – Assistant Director: Nelson Mandela Metropolitan Art Museum
“I do not know if ever I will become a great artist, but an artist of my own nation I surely am to be…”, (1944)
In 1992 the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan Art Museum invited George Milwa Mnyaluza Pemba to commemorate his 80th birthday with an exhibition and opening event. The exhibition of around 30 works was made possible thanks to many local collectors agreeing to loan work for the celebration of this important milestone. His birthday celebration was attended by liberation heroes, Govan Mbeki and Dan Qeqe in support of his status as an icon of the Liberation Movement. Attendees remember Pemba heckling Mbeki gently (they were good friends) with regard to his status as a comrade, with Pemba happier to be known simply for his work as an artist.
This celebration occurred in the wake of Pemba’s growing recognition nationally. While Pemba was well known by the art fraternity within Port Elizabeth (now Gqeberha) he was not widely recognised as an important artist in the broader South African art scene (not an uncommon occurrence for artists working outside of the main art centres). In 1991 an exhibition of his work almost sold out at the Everard Read Gallery in Johannesburg and propelled him into the national arena. Later in 1996 a major retrospective exhibition and catalogue of his work was presented by the South African National Gallery. The catalogue under the careful curatorship of Hayden Proud presented new research and provided a more serious and detailed evaluation of Pemba’s role in the history of South African art.
Throughout his career, Pemba cultivated friendships with local Port Elizabeth artists and patrons. He was encouraged to join the EPSAC (Eastern Province Society of Arts and Culture now ArtEC) in 1956 by artist, Dorothy Kay, where he exhibited in Arts Hall (now part of the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan Art Museum). Kay, who was a creative force in the local art establishment, reflects in letters at the oddity at the time of a black artist both attending their painting circle and being very articulate around art and art practices. Kay’s correspondence reflects the divide that existed between black and white South Africans at the time but it is clear from her correspondence on his work that she greatly admired his talent. Pemba in an early diary entry on the same issue, discusses the sense of difference entrenched in South African communities and comments on how he feels art could be an opportunity to find common humanity, “in the end black and white will discover that they are only men”. This quote is evident in the sensitive manner in which he captured people’s likeness regardless of race or background. Due to pressure from a younger generation of artists towards high modernism and abstraction and an incident of jealously over good press coverage that Pemba received on one of the exhibitions, Pemba stepped back from EPSAC and stopped exhibiting on the annual exhibition in the late 1960s.
Pemba’s passion for portraiture was exemplified through local anecdotes that describe Pemba approaching people to sit for him that he felt an affinity for. The oil painting, Portrait of Mr Gluck (1947), currently in the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan Art Museum’s collection was one such instance. Pemba was commissioned to paint Mr Gluck’s daughter but requested instead to paint the father. Mr Gluck passed away soon after the initial sitting and the portrait remained as a very special record for the family. The work was purchased from the estate of the daughter, the late Ms Dinky Goldberg in 2005. Dorothy Kay was herself a very good portrait artist and art history would have been richer if the chance had arisen for Pemba and Kay to paint portraits of each other.
Pemba’s watercolour portraits are the jewels in the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan Art Museum collection. Pemba attributes his skill in watercolours to his former teacher Ethel Smyth at the University of Fort Hare and later Professor Austin Wintermoore at Rhodes University who taught him the fundamentals of drawing. Pemba received a bursary from the Bantu Welfare Trust to study at Rhodes University for five months in 1937. The watercolour portraits show off Pemba’s immense sensitivity in capturing the character of the person sitting for him. The watercolour painting came to light in an exhibition held at the Highburg Gallery in 1993 organised by Cathy Binnell. The Nelson Mandela Metropolitan Art Museum’s collection of watercolour paintings were acquired from this exhibition.
While Pemba drew on subject matter from around South Africa, his oeuvre is connected significantly to his home city. Four of the Pemba paintings in the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan Art Museum’s collection reflect the development of the city. A delicate watercolour view titled, The birth of Site and Service (1930) reflects the implementation of early land policies which provided impoverished communities a site with basic services and access to a government loan to build. This policy however was implemented in a manner that ensured segregation. This gentle watercolour therefore hides in its light brush marks the beginnings of the Apartheid city.
In 2016 the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan Art Museum received a generous donation of three Pemba works including two oil paintings beautifully depicting a street scene in New Brighton dated 1957 and the Horse Memorial situated in the inner city when the memorial was positioned in front of the then King George VI Art Gallery (now the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan Art Museum). At this time, Pemba was exhibiting regularly on the EPSAC annual exhibitions, and his paintings reflect the civic pride remanence of many of artistic views of the city painted at the time. His later image of the development of the highway too sits amongst similar images painted by contemporary artists critical of the agenda of mid-century South African city planning. The new highway development is linked in local lore with the forced removals and destruction of the racially diverse community of South End. In the painting, Port Elizabeth Highway, the Apartheid flag flies high above rust coloured scaffolding, holding up a frame in preparation for casting of the new concrete highway. In Pemba’s image a lone figure walks with a stick, dwarfed by the monstrous structure of Apartheid urban planning.
One cannot understate the importance of Pemba to the history of art of the Eastern Cape and more broadly South Africa. He is counted amongst the pioneer black artists who forged a path for non-white artists before and during Apartheid. Looking back at Pemba’s career, his determination to practice and live as a professional artist at a time in South Africa history when this kind of ambition was actively suppressed, is herculean. Pemba turned professional in the late 1940s and held his first solo exhibition in East London in 1948, the same year that the National Party took power. Despite many hurdles which only increased as the country moved towards to the state of emergency, he continued to pursue his art with the support from a few dedicated patrons, and his wife Eunice who helped him to sustain his artistic practice during tough times.
Pemba’s younger idealism was worn down by the increasingly draconian Apartheid regime and his subject matter reflected this. Pemba painted the history and lives of black communities at a time when the country was segregated, and the reality of black lives was suppressed from mainstream media. Many of his paintings reflected both the struggles of daily life and celebrated the humanity and strength of the people around him.
In 1986, the Imvaba Arts Association formed during the State of Emergency to oppose the Apartheid regime. The young artists who joined this organisation admired Pemba and his work. Members included: Lou Alman, Michael Barry, Mxolisi Ganto, Sipho Kulati, Gavin Mabie, Naomi MacKay, Mpumelelo Melane, Sponono Nkopane, George Pemba, Liso Pemba, Titus Pemba, Annette du Plessis, Mxolisi Douglas Sapeta aka “Dolla.” A few had been past students. Pemba was asked to join Imvaba as a veteran to the cause and mentor for the group. In an important piece of art activism, Imvaba painted murals on a local New Brighton beer hall claiming this space for artists and art activism. Today this space has been renovated and is known as the Mendi Art Centre. The centre provides space for all the arts to be taught and performed including fine art.
Pemba’s influence continues to be felt in the vibrant fine art community still present in his old neighbourhood of New Brighton. Pemba was passionate about uplifting young artists in his community. His father had always encouraged him to develop his talent and Pemba carried on this tradition by teaching classes when possible. At one time Dan Qeqe provided space at his residence for Pemba to teach. One of Pemba’s past students and resident artist, writer and poet of New Brighton, Dolla Sapeta, remembers the importance of these classes to his creative development.
Pemba was awarded with an honorary Masters’ Degree from University of Fort Hare in 1979 and an Honorary Doctorate from the University of Port Elizabeth (now Nelson Mandela University) in 2002 for his contribution to South African art . The South African Government posthumously bestowed George Pemba with the Order of Ikhamanga in Gold at the National Orders awards on 19 October 2004, for his pioneering and exceptional contribution to the development of the art of painting and literature. In 2012, the South African Post Office honoured Pemba by producing a set of 10 commemorative stamps in celebration of what would have been his 100th birthday.
We thank the Pemba family and GFI Art Gallery for honouring the Art & Legacy of George Milwa Mnyaluza Pemba. GFI ART GALLERY