During 1931 Pemba received his first formal art training in painting and drawing from Ethel Smythe who taught at the University College of Fort Hare. Over a period of five weeks, he was introduced to the 'laws' of watercolour painting - how to mix colours and apply specialised wash techniques.
Pemba found a friend and mentor in the chaplain at Lovedale College, Reverend Robert Shepherd, who recognised his emerging talent and helped to promote his early painting career. He started doing illustrations for books published by the Lovedale Press and actively appealed to everyone he believed might be able to help him further his artistic career by assisting him with introductions and commissions for portraits or illustrations. Pemba distinguished himself during those early years as somebody who continuously strived to help himself in establishing an artistic career.
In 1935 Pemba found a teaching post at a school in King William's Town. He was supplementing his income with painting commissions in an effort to help support his mother and large extended family who had been under enormous financial strain since his father's death in 1928. With the help of Rev. Shepherd, he managed to arrange a grant from the Bantu Welfare Trust which enabled him to receive formal training at Rhodes University. He received four months of intensive training in watercolour technique by Professor Austin Winter Moore in 1937. Prof. Winter Moore subsequently entered Pemba's work in the May Esther Bedford Art Competition of that year, resulting in him taking first prize with Gerard Sekoto the runner-up.
In 1938 he moved to a better paid job at the New Brighton Department of Native Administration. His second marriage to Nombeko Eunice Mndi in 1939 was an enduring partnership - they were married for 47 years and had five children.
On a visit to Cape Town in 1941, Pemba briefly studied under Maurice van Essche. During this visit he also met Gerard Sekoto and John Mohl. Sekoto encouraged him to change his medium from watercolour to oils, as it was more in demand by art buyers. Sekoto also advised Pemba, who at that stage was primarily a portraitist, to paint aspects of township life in order to expand his range of subject matter. Mohl encouraged him to concentrate on his painting and give up his regular job.
Like Sekoto, Pemba longed to travel and work in Europe in order to broaden his horizons and gain experience, but his financial responsibilities made this impossible. In 1944 he secured a further grant from the Bantu Welfare Trust which he used to embark on a grand tour of South Africa to see and experience the different peoples in their natural surroundings. He travelled to Johannesburg, Durban, rural Natal, Basutoland and Umtata - expressing particular interest in the indigenous cultures and tribal life of the different regions. He made numerous sketches which he later used to produce watercolours depicting the different rural peoples in their tribal dress.
In 1948 he had a successful solo exhibition in Port Elizabeth and resolved to devote all his efforts to painting. Unfortunately, he struggled to support his family as a professional artist 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.
During the 1950's Pemba mastered oil painting - his portraits were considered to be exceptional because of the convincing way in which they portrayed the subject's character. In 1957 he held a solo exhibition at the Old Mutual Arcade in Port Elizabeth, which was praised in the press, and he was the only black artist at the Queenstown Art Society annual exhibition in 1958. In 1961 he had another successful solo exhibition sponsored by the South African Institute of Race Relations. He became well known in Port Elizabeth and participated in group exhibitions whenever he could, but was still not known outside of the Eastern Cape.
During the fifties, the effects of apartheid on South African society were becoming evident. Pemba was enraged by the injustices and expressed his hatred of the apartheid system by depicting the struggle of black peoples' everyday lives in his paintings - showing its impoverishing effects. For much of the sixties Pemba and his wife also assumed financial responsibility for his brother's family as well as the children of relatives - maintaining a total of 20 children. He received some relief from an unexpected source when the IDAF, a London based organisation providing clandestine support for victims of apartheid, regularly started sending him some money from 1968 until 1990.
As a result of the politics of the time and his family commitments, Pemba's career did not progress as well as he had hoped in the fifties and sixties. The financial pressures of supporting an extended family as well as running a business were also compounded by his battle with alcohol. His drinking problem had started in 1944 and by the early 1970's it was affecting both his health and his work. After many failed attempts he eventually managed to stop drinking, and started to paint consistently - developing his own unique style of painting that could be recognised as that of a mature artist who had found his niche.
In 1979 Pemba was awarded an honorary Master of Arts degree by the University of Fort Hare. He had handed over the running of his store to his family and was painting full-time. He began to portray the Xhosa people practising their traditional customs in an urban rather than rural setting. By the end of the eighties he had become one of South Africa's most revered black artists, finally receiving recognition for his contribution to South African art. Commercial success followed, culminating in two very successful exhibitions at the Everard Read Gallery in Johannesburg in 1991 and 1992.
Despite years of adversity and poverty, George Pemba's painting career spanned six decades - providing a visual history of what he had witnessed in a transforming South Africa. He had established himself as a pioneer of social realism, taking his inspiration from the realities and struggles of urban black peoples' everyday life in a troubled South Africa."
George Pemba Art Foundation
George Pemba Pioneer Artist of South Africa
George Pemba Artist in the Wilderness (The Sunday Times)
A countryman in clerk's clothing (Sunday Times)
The struggling painter (Sunday Times)
Beating the competition (Sunday Times)
A grand tour - George Pemba diary extracts (Sunday Times)
The pen is mightier than Apartheid (Sunday Times)
VIDEO George Pemba (Sunday Times)