Modern, Post-War and Contemporary Art
Live Virtual Auction, 5 - 6 April 2022
Figuration: Past and Present
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About this Item
signed and dated 88
George Pemba’s impressive output of figurative work spans seven decades and principally describes black life during the high apartheid years. Pemba achieved early acclaim for his portraits but also portrayed community life. He mastered illustration and watercolour before switching to oil. A refined draughtsman with a keen sense for action, composition and colour, Pemba’s paintings were often derived from events he recorded in drawings. Colour was always a subject of deep deliberation.
A technically accomplished painter, his early watercolours depicted rural black people in traditional attire. From the 1950s, Pemba increasingly depicted urban life in New Brighton, a segregated township in Port Elizabeth (Gqeberha). His mature work combined the stylistic influences of seventeenth-century Dutch naturalism with nineteenth-century British narrative painting and early French modernism. The three lots offered here date from Pemba’s middle and late periods. They show his effortless ability to move between private and public urban spaces, and keen sense for the shift in intimacies and identities that occurs.
Pemba was 48 when he produced Figure Reading beside a Street (lot 345). He frequently produced street scenes. Of those dated 1960, most are characterised by their mustard palette. This sundrenched composition depicting an old man absorbed in reading a newspaper under a blue sky captures the “joys and sorrows of township life” in a brushy style redolent of Gregoire Boonzaier’s impressionist studies of Cape Town’s Malay Quarter.1
Pemba often depicted black commuters in segregated buses and trains. These social compositions are frequently elegiac in mood, more so in his late works from the 1980s onwards, when Pemba adopted a more sombre palette. They sit comfortably alongside works like Honoré Daumier’s three oils titled The Third-Class Carriage (1856–65). The downcast bearing on the man in the yellow jacket in lot 347 is however counterbalanced by the gregarious exchange between the two women at right. Community solidarity is an important hallmark of Pemba’s studies of commuters.
The identity of the sitters in Pemba’s portrait Grandma and Child (lot 346) is unknown, but the work bears out two facts. Pemba was strongly influenced by western art history, and while not classically a mother and child composition, the allusion is nonetheless clear. Biographically, it bears noting that Pemba frequently did portrait commissions, including of children. Children filled his world, notably from the 1960s onwards, when he adopted his deceased brother Jimmy’s children. From the early 1970s Pemba also maintained an informal school. It was another measure of his big-heartedness as an artist engaged by life.
1. Sarah Hudleston (1996) Against All Odds, Johannesburg: Jonathan Ball Publishers, page 63.
Susan Imire Ross, Cape Town, thence by descent.
Strauss & Co, Giving Direction: Figuration, Past and Present, Welgemeend Manor, Cape Town, 14 to 20 February 2022, illustrated in colour on page 9 of the exhibition catalogue.