Port Elizabeth of Yore: George Pemba and his Art

George Milwa Mnyaluza Pemba [1912-2001] is amongst the best-known artists produced by Port Elizabeth. Born at Hill’s Kraal in Korsten in 1912, like aspirant artists of his era, his hobby could not be converted into a full-time occupation especially due to his race as his target market was indigent at best. His style is referred to Urban or Social Realism of which he was a pioneer as he specialised in painting gatherings of people in everyday settings. In the 1940s after encouragement by fellow black painter Sekoto, Pemba took the courageous and plucky step of resigning from his day job to concentrate on painting.

Main picture: The achievement of Pemba is celebrated by a series of ten stamps posthumously produce by the Post Office on 2nd April 2012. Mother’s child, 1972, Oil; Township granny, 1950, Watercolour; The Minister’s new convert, 1945, Watercolour; Portrait of Mr Gluck, 1947, Oil; Xhosa woman, 1947, Watercolour; Portrait, 1948, Oil; Ting-Ting, 1945, Watercolour; Mr Pemba’s mother, 1993, Watercolour; Family life, 1977, Oil; Portrait of Xolile Ndongeni, 1987, Oil

Schooling and education

Early in his life, Pemba was encouraged by his father to draw and paint. Can one infer from this encouragement that his father discerned an incipient or latent talent in the young child? As a consequence, George began to paint murals in the family house and paint portraits from photographs of his father’s employers. At the age of 14 this positive influence and source of encouragement would cease when his father was killed in a motorcycle accident in 1926.

Apart from an innate talent of painting, he must have also displayed some mental acuity as he attended the Van der Kemp Mission Primary School adjacent to Bethelsdorp until 1924 when he won the Grey Scholarship to attend Paterson Secondary School which was then situated in North End. Subsequently, he won a Grey Scholarship, which enabled him to receive post primary education, and in 1931 he obtained a Teacher’s Diploma at the Lovedale Training College in the Eastern Cape.

Residents of New Brighton present portrait by George Pemba of mayor Adolph Schauder to him


After obtaining the diploma, he worked there as a teacher until 1936 when he accepted a teaching post at the Wesleyan Mission School in King William’s Town. While at Lovedale, Pemba produced illustrations for books published by the Lovedale Press and was mentored by Reverend R. H. W. Shepherd. He left teaching after seven years to take up a better-paid job as messenger of the Native Commissioner’s Court, and then as a rent collector for the Township Administration.

A step into the world of art

The fact that Pemba now attended courses which were specifically related to art, implies that Pemba had taken a step in the direction of being a full-time painter. During the following year he studied under Professor Austin Winter Moore for five months at Rhodes University which was made possible through a bursary awarded from the Bantu Welfare Trust. Pemba was awarded a second bursary in 1941. This time he spent two weeks at Maurice van Essche‘s studio in Cape Town attending art classes. It was at Maurice van Essche‘s studio where he met Gerard Sekoto and John Mohl. Sekoto encouraged him to work as a full-time artist and change his medium from watercolour to oils. He travelled to Johannesburg, Durban, KwaZulu-NatalUmtata and Basutoland painting portraits of the indigen-ous peoples he met in the different regions.

Art career

When he was sixteen years old in 1928, Pemba’s first work was first exhibited at the Feather Market Hall in Port Elizabeth. Not there to congratulate him was his father, his prime motivator and inspiration as he had died two years previously. In 1934, Pemba was treated for a burst appendix, and he spent his hospital stay drawing pictures of nurses and doctors. His hospital drawings caught the attention of landscape painter Ethel Smythe who took an interest in Pemba and offered him tutelage. Smythe possessed a large collection of books that introduced him to the work of Rembrandt van RijnDiego Velázquez and impressionism. In 1937, Pemba received first prize in the May Esther Bedford Competition where the musician and artist Gerard Sekoto received second prize. His first commission came in 1950, in the form of a portrait of the educator and activist, Professor Davidson Don Tengo Jabavu for the University of Fort Hare.

In 1948 Pemba held a successful solo exhibition in Port Elizabeth after which he resolved to devote all his efforts to painting. Unfortunately, as a professional artist he struggled to support his family and had to supplement his income. He decided to start his own business and opened a small general dealer’s store, which he and his wife ran until 1978.

 In later years, Pemba also taught art to children at the SA Institute of Race Relations and as a result, was awarded an Honorary Master of Arts Degree from the University of Fort Hare in 1979.

Like Gerard Sekoto, Pemba was eager to travel and work in abroad in Europe in order to expand his horizons and gain valuable experience, but his financial responsibilities held him back. However, in 1944 the Bantu Welfare Trust awarded Pemba with another grant, allowing the artist to embark on a tour of South Africa to immerse himself in the various local cultures and their natural surroundings. Pemba travelled to Johannesburg, Durban, rural KwaZulu Natal, Lesotho (then known as Basutoland) and Umtata (now Mthatha) – showing an extreme keenness to learn about the various indigenous cultures and tribal life of the different regions. He made numerous sketches, which he later used to produce striking and thought-provoking watercolour paintings depicting the different rural peoples in their tribal attire.

George Pemba

In 1945 the artist joined the ANC, although he never positioned himself as a political artist, he depicted the joys and sorrows synonymous with township life. Explaining his approach in an interview in 1991, the artist asserted that he painted freely: ”Sometimes I paint to express pain and sorrow. For example, I painted the train massacres and the life in hostels. But I have no motif. 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.” During the 1970s Pemba painted prolifically and his style matured, giving form to his unique creative voice. It was also during this time that Pemba’s artwork progressively began to depict poignant responses to the severe upheavals caused by the apartheid legislations.

A highly successful exhibition comprising of Pemba’s works from the 1940s onwards was held at The Everard Read Gallery in 1991. In 1992 a second exhibition served to commemorate his 80th birthday, which was also celebrated with the artist at the King George VI Art Gallery in Port Elizabeth.

What Pemba’s work showcases

George Pemba’s work showcases the richness and diversity of life in South Africa, including its dark oppressive history. It also highlights the essence of the South African people in paintings of rural and township life, as well as portraits depicting men and women in traditional attire, and children and mothers with babies.

George Pemba


George Pemba – Legend of South African Art 2 April 1912 – 12 July  

George Milwa Mnyaluza Pemba. Life With Art. Accesses 12 July.

The Pen is Mightier Than the Sword. South African Heritage Project.

Pemba Milwa Mnyaluza Pemba. South African Government.

Honouring South Africa’s Grand Master of Art. My PE News.

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