Evening Sale

Live Virtual Auction, 28 May 2024

Evening Sale

Sold for

ZAR 462 100
Lot 148
  • George Milwa Mnyaluza Pemba; Family Figures
  • George Milwa Mnyaluza Pemba; Family Figures
  • George Milwa Mnyaluza Pemba; Family Figures

Lot Estimate
ZAR 300 000 - 500 000
Selling Price
Incl. Buyer's Premium & VAT
ZAR 462 100

About this Item

South African 1912-2001
Family Figures

signed and dated 90

oil on board
52 by 72cm excluding frame; 60 by 80 by 3,5cm including frame


The term ‘realism’ has often been used to speak of the working concerns of a lineage of urban black painters, among them George Pemba, who shared an interest in accurately recording aspects of the everyday. Realism in this sense conveys a broad commitment to being true to life, something Pemba’s prodigious output abundantly visualises. Realism, though, is also an art historical term. It denotes a movement in the figurative arts that, to quote art historian Linda Nochlin, attained its most ‘coherent and consistent formulation’ in 19th-century France, with ‘echoes, parallels and variants’ elsewhere – including 20th-century South Africa.1

A 1955 photograph of Pemba in his studio includes a framed reproduction of Jean-François Millet’s The Gleaners (1857), a defining work of French realism. Pemba reimagined Millet’s famous scene in a number of paintings depicting rural women at work. Pemba’s figurative style though combines a number of western influences ranging from 17th-century Dutch naturalism to 19th-century British narrative painting and early French modernism. It would be a crude reduction of Pemba’s output to view it merely as a distillation of these influences. Pemba harnessed his influences to create a body of work committed to the lived experiences of black South Africans. His output includes serial depictions of bus commuters, hospital patients, roadside gamblers and convulsed families, each unlike the other.

The domestic sphere particularly was a recurring subject in his work. Typical of Pemba’s stage-set compositions is his frontal portrayal of an interior space with, at minimum, a window and framed artwork, often also a dining table and open door. This bare setting, populated with inanimate markers of civility, faith and taste, enabled Pemba to tell bountiful community stories of unannounced arrivals, painful departures and felicitous returns. This work portrays a son leaving a Christian home, presumably to work and find his fortune. Pemba characteristically funnels the action towards a centre point: here, the hand of the departing son and terrified face of the mother. A theatrical light cocoons the melancholy scene.

While it is important to locate this painting within a personal repertoire of scenes, as well as to understand its relationship to art history, of equal significance is Pemba’s assured use of colour. His colour choices are never facile or gratuitous. The teal and white used to detail the garments of the mother and son helps visualise the intimate familial bond. Such apparently simple achievements were the outcome of dedicated colour analyses over many years. ‘I have made many discoveries in my painting career but I do not think I have made a more exciting discovery than that of colour,’ wrote Pemba in 1987, three years before he painted this affecting scene at the dawn of South Africa’s democratic era.2

1 Linda Nochlin (1971) Realism, Harmondsworth, Penguin Books. Page 13.
2 Sarah Hudleston (1996) George Pemba: Against All Odds, Johannesburg, Jonathan Ball Publishers. Page 81.

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