George Pemba was the second youngest of six children, born in Port Elizabeth in 1912. He would sometimes be caught drawing at junior school, and be punished by his teachers for it. But
his parents encouraged him; as a boy he painted portraits of his father’s employers. When he was only 12, he won a scholarship to study at the only high school in Port Elizabeth then to take black students. At 16, encouraged by his favourite teacher, he entered an art competition at a local agricultural show – and won first prize. After finishing his education, Pemba’s paintings and drawings began to win many prizes and awards, and he was able to sell his work.
But being a black artist during the time of apartheid was very difficult, and he found it extremely hard to devote time to painting. Everything changed for him in 1969, when he received a grant from the international Defence and Aid Fund in London, which gave him an income that continued for the next twenty years. After that, he was able to give all his attention to painting. Pemba had access to art books about the great oil paintings of Europe; his favourites were the Impressionists and Post-Impressionists – Monet, Renoir, Van Gogh, Toulouse-Lautrec, Degas, and Gauguin.
Pemba himself was a storyteller in pictures, and most of his images are visual narratives about life in the Eastern Cape. His style of painting reflects his very descriptive way of portraying the world. He sometimes allowed his brushstroke to become looser and more energetic, where he shows something of the influence of the Impressionists. In this image you will see that, for example, in the white-blue folds of the girl’s dress, composed of brushstrokes which hover and dance freely over the surface.
Talk About This
Look again at George Pemba’s painting. Who do you think commissioned this portrait? (The title might be a clue.)
How is this little girl presented? You will probably agree that this image of her is very formal. What do we mean by that? Look at what she is wearing: how would you characterise this? Also look at the way she sits: her hands, her posture. What do these details seem to tell us?
Why this formality? What do you think this might tell us, for example, about the significance or importance of this portrait to this little girl’s family?