George Pemba 1997


George  Milwa  Mnyaluza  Pemba was born on 2 April 1912 at Hill’s Kraal, in Korsten Village, Port Elizabeth.  His parents, Titus and Rebecca, came from Middledrift to Port Elizabeth in the 1890s.   His father was a foreman at Cuthberts shoe factory and an elder in the Presbyterian church.   He was given the name Pemba which means ‘kindling’, as a result of the infectious nature of his work in the community.   George inherited his artistic talents from his mother’s side of the family who were mostly crafts people  - self-made dressmakers and tailors. 
George was the second youngest of six children of whom five were boys.  His eldest brother, Timothy, was his earliest art teacher.  “He could draw decorations on the wall with red clay, shoe polish, the soot of pots for black and even washing blue to get the result he desired” recalls Pemba.  George regarded Timothy as “a sort of hero”.  “He could not go wrong, so I imitated him, but on a slate”.
There were no art classes at his junior school and the young George soon got into trouble as he would rush through his schoolwork in order to devote the spare time to drawing.  His teacher thought he was wasting his time and punished him.  As he recalls, “He gave me a smack with an open hand, and so I had to find some other time for drawing”.
His schooling was in Bethelsdorp and at Paterson High School and his first exhibition was at the Feather Market Hall in 1928.   He had two paintings on display for which he received early recognition in the columns of the Eastern Province Herald.
After matriculating in 1930, he headed for Lovedale Training College, Alice where he obtained a Teacher’s Higher Primary Diploma in 1934.  That it took him a little longer to complete his diploma was due to the fact that he was hospitalised in 1931 as a result of a burst appendix.
Dit was terwyl hy ‘n pasiënt in die Victoria-hospitaal was, dat sy potensiaal as skilder ontdek is.   Hy is daarna die geleentheid gegun om aan die Universiteitskollege van Fort Hare water¬verf¬skil¬de¬ry onder mej Ethel Smythe te studeer.   In 1937 is ‘n beurs van die Welsynstrust van Fort Hare aan hom toegeken vir verdere studie aan Rhodes-Universiteit onder professor A Wintermore.   Gedurende hierdie tydperk het hy opdrag ontvang van die Lovedale-Pers om pro¬fes¬sor DDT Jabavu te skilder.  Hy het later verdere opdragte ontvang van die Mariya-Pers, dr Nyem¬bezi van Pietermaritzburg en die Literatuurburo van die Instituut vir Rasseverhoudinge.  Die Buro het hom ook op ‘n toer van Noord-Transvaal, Natal en ‘n aantal myne gestuur om inligting te bekom vir hul boeke oor die verskillende stamme wat by die myne werksaam was.
Gedurende die Tweede Wêreldoorlog het hy ‘n tweede beurs van die Welsynstrust van Fort Hare ont¬vang om deur Suid-Afrika en Lesotho (die destydse “Basoetoeland”) te toer en te skilder.    Van hierdie reis, verklaar Pemba: “Ek kon ‘n landskap uit eni¬ge hoek skilder sonder om op enigiemand se grond te oortree.  Dit was ware vryheid.  Dit was God se tuin voordat die mensdom dit met die inrigtings van die moderne kultuur bederf het.”
George het jaarliks vanaf die dertigerjare sy werke by Fort Hare ten toon gestel, asook op ten¬toon-stellings van die Suid-Afrikaanse Kunsvereniging,  die Lichtenburgse Kunsmuseum en verskeie tentoonstellings oral in die Oos-Kaap.   In 1945 het hy saam met Sekota en ander kunstenaars ‘n tentoonstelling in die Johannesburgse Kunsmuseum gehou, asook by die Oostelike Provinsie se Kunsvlytvereniging in Port Elizabeth.   Die eerste van verskeie solo-tentoonstellings volg in 1948 in Port Elizabeth.
Die opeenvolging van suksesvolle tentoonstellings en gunstige openbare kommentaar op sy werk, veral van die kunsresensent van die Herald, versterk sy geesdrif vir die skilderkuns en inspireer hom om sy vaardighede verder te slyp.   Dit is ironies dat die beskeie en nederige Pemba destyds glad nie daarvan bewus was dat hy stadig maar seker besig was om ‘n stewige reputasie vir homself op te bou nie.     
During the apartheid era, when many promising Black artists left the country in search of greener pastures abroad, Pemba, as his name suggests, kept the fires burning at home and continued to kindle  the artistic torch of hope and freedom.
The growth of mass resistance to the South African Government in the 1980s inspired many politically committed artists to engage in protest art.  Pemba, who had as early as the 1950s represented the impact of apartheid on the daily lives of black people in the Port Elizabeth  townships, responded to the upheavals by exposing through his artistic works the social conditions under which the black people of South Africa lived.   While in some instances the mere portrayal of “township” life could have been construed as a political act, Pemba was never consciously involved in making protest art.   He explained his approach in an interview in 1991 as follows:                                
“I paint freely.  Sometimes I paint to express pain and sorrow.  For example, I painted the train massacres and life in hostels.   But I have no motive.   I get inspiration from what I see and sometimes from what I feel.   It just happens by accident that I do something expressing political oppression.”
The University of Fort Hare was the first institution to acknowledge Pemba’s contributions to South African art when he was awarded an honorary Master’s degree in 1979.   Recognition by other black institutions followed, but it was only in the 1990s that Pemba eventually received the wider acclaim his work so richly deserves.   The first manifestation of this re-evaluation process, was a major exhibition of 93 of his paintings at the prestigious Everard Read Gallery in Johannesburg.   While the exhibition primarily served commercial interests and revealed the unsavoury, exploitative side of the art business, it did serve belatedly to introduce his work to a wider audience.   At the same time favourable coverage in the press ensured that he would for the first time receive national and international recognition.   In her introduction to the catalogue of the exhibition, Professor Estelle Marais commented: ‘Directness, unembellished honesty, strength of draughtmanship and composition and observational ability mark the work of this man.’
George Pemba’s work constitutes a unique instance of what may be termed ‘township realism’.   This does not mean, though, that it is exhaustively determined by its representationalist character.   To be sure, on the one hand, it is an important sociological record of township life, a window onto a world that for 50 years existed parallel to white society.   On the other hand, it is a sensitive and nuanced interpretation of the lives of his people, ranging from everyday merriments to the harsher realities of life under apartheid.   One critic aptly observed that the people who appear on George Pemba’s canvases are never allowed to lose their dignity, even when they are portrayed as victims.
When asked how he manages to run his business while at the same time pursuing his artistic profession, George chuckles and with an enigmatic smile says:  “My only secret is that I never stop liking my work.  Immediately when you feel you are tired of doing what you know best, then you are finished.  And immediately when you think you are the best, you are on the way out.”
A long time coming, George Pemba is today widely and justifiably recognised as the greatest African visual artist to have emerged from the Eastern Cape.   He has played an impressive role in the development and upliftment of art as a profession in our region and has brought much acclaim to Port Elizabeth and to the Eastern Cape.  
Mr Chancellor, to demonstrate the esteem in which the University of Port Elizabeth holds him and in recognition of his important contribution to the advancement of African art in Southern Africa and to the development and liberation of artistic life and culture in our country, I now have pleasure in requesting you to confer the degree of Doctor Philosophiae, honoris causa, on  GEORGE  MILWA  MNYALUZA  PEMBA.