George Pemba (1912-2001), teacher, clerk and shopkeeper, and throughout a revolutionary South African art hero. When he died in 2001, he was revered for his exceptional contribution to South African art. 

Did you know?

In 2012, a century after Pemba was born, the South African post office paid tribute to him by issuing a set of 10 stamps, and a miniature sheet, of Pemba’s best known artworks.

George Milwa Mnyaluza Pemba preferred painting than attending class at the Van der Kemp Mission Primary School in Port Elizabeth. 

As a young child, the walls were his canvas and soot, shoe polish and clay his medium, until his father realised that his son had a great talent. Pencils, crayon and paper replaced walls and soot. 

When he died, aged 89, in 2001, Pemba was one of the country's most revered artists. Some of his best works were done in watercolours, his favourite medium, but at the behest of another great South African artist, Gerard Sekoto, Pemba also experimented with oil paint. 

He never left South African soil, choosing instead to practise his craft by documenting the lives of oppressed South Africans living under the apartheid regime. 

In 1944 Pemba was quoted as writing: 'I do not know if ever I will become a great artist, but an artist of my own nation I surely am to be ...'

The scope of his contribution, to the arts, was acknowledged by the South African Presidency in Ocotober 2004, when the Order of Ikhamanga, Gold, was posthumously conferred on him for his pioneering, and exceptional, contribution to the development of the art of painting and literature.

In 1924, Pemba won a Grey Scholarship to Paterson School, where he spent hours in the library studying art books. He won an art competition at a local agricultural show, and then expanded his repertoire to drawing portraits based on photographs, for which he earned pocket money.

His art was noticed in 1931, while he was convalescing from an appendectomy. His portrait of one of the patients, an old man, was noticed by Reverend Dr Shepherd, the director of the Lovedale Press and chaplain of Lovedale College.

Shepherd asked the teenager for his permission to use the watercolour as the frontispiece (the decorative illustration facing the book's title page) of the book U-Nolishwa, by Henry Ndawo, and commissioned Pemba to prepare illustrations for the book. It was the first book known to be written, illustrated, printed and bound by Africans.

But it was a very difficult time for artists, and specifically black artists, to make a living. He had to put his passion for painting on hold and studied to become a teacher.

He took up a position at the Wesleyan Mission School in King William's Town in 1935.

But painting remained his first love and in the late 1940s he left his clerical job at the Department of Native Administration in Port Elizabeth, taking up painting as a profession with the encouragement of fellow artists Gerard Sekoto and John Mohl.

Pemba pushed the boundaries by having his first solo exhibition in East London in 1948, at that time the state was tightening its screws on racial segregation, and relegating black people to second-class citizenship. Pemba also exhibited at the Eastern Province Art Association's annual exhibition in 1965, provoking undisguised racial hostility toward him.

Despite indifference from the mainstream art world, which regarded his work at best as colloquial, and antipathy from the apartheid government which, given the pre-ordained prescriptions of the apartheid ideology, saw his profession as inappropriate for a 'native', Pemba continued to paint and sell his work. His wife Eunice helped to supplement the family's income by running a 'house shop'.

The artist was also a playwright, and two of his works were staged. 
In 1979 the University of Fort Hare conferred an honorary Masters degree on him for his contribution to South African art.