Pemba was born in Hills's Kraal, Korsten Village, Port Elizabeth, in 1912
He attended the Van der Kemp Mission Primary School and Paterson Secondary School on a Grey scholarship, which he won, enabling him to receive post primary education.
Like most schools for black pupils in South African, neither offered art as a part of its syllabus but as a child he was encouraged by his father to draw and paint, and so began painting murals on the family house and producing portraits from photographs of his father's employers.
In 1931 he obtained a Teacher's Diploma at the Lovedale Training College in Alice in the Eastern Cape, and here, for the first time his works were accepted for exhibition. Unable to enroll for full-time art studies after completing his studies at Lovedale in 1935, he was given special permission to enroll as an external student, for four months in 1936, at Rhodes University.
In 1931 he also began working for the Lovedale Printing Press, where he continued to work until 1936. The following year he studied under Professor Austin Winter Moore for five months at Rhodes University, won through a bursary awarded from the Bantu Welfare Trust. Pemba was awarded a second bursary in 1941. At this time he spent two weeks at Maurice van Essche's studio in Cape Town attending art classes.
Pemba's quest to be a professional artist was, up to this point, similar to other black artists of his generation. But unlike those who left the country to find their artistic homes abroad, Pemba remained in South Africa to make his name as a professional painter.
During the 1940's he met John Mohl and Gerard Sekoto who encouraged him to work as a full-time artist. He subsequently worked for the Native Administration in Port Elizabeth as a clerk. From 1952 to 1978 he supplemented his income selling groceries in a shop. Following that, he taught art to children at the S.A. Institute of Race Relations and in 1979 was awarded an Honorary Master of Arts Degree from the University of Fort Hare.
He became increasingly involved in resistance politics, joining the African National Congress in 1945 and producing a number of satirical cartoons for the newspaper Isizwe. He struggled to exhibit his work and returned seriously to his painting only in 1965.
Pemba painted a range of subjects: portraits of individuals from a variety of backgrounds, images drawn from Xhosa and Sotho traditions, and landscapes. He is, however, best known for his township scenes.
As a social historian Pemba interpreted the customs and living conditions of township dwellers of the Eastern Cape during apartheid, revealing processes of modernization in which a resilient black culture survives extreme oppression. The paintings, however, were not couched in the socialist realism of revolutionary 20th century propaganda art, but rather in an impressionistic style in keeping with the trends set by Eastern Cape artists such as Dorothy Kay, with whom Pemba painted in the 1950's.
Pemba also executed paintings that reflect an abiding interest in African tradition and its values and customs, particularly as manifested in Xhosa and Sotho dress and ritual. Many are unnamed portraits encapsulating the enduring nobility of African heritage, set apart from ethnographic studies by their intensity and sense of individuality,.
The same humanism is evident in his portraits of influential black literati such as the Xhosa poet Mqhayi. In the late 1980's and early 1990's his attention shifted to the energetic depiction of overtly political themes, reflecting the turmoil of the dying years of apartheid.
Although Pemba was recognized among the black intelligentsia from the 1940's and received honorary degrees from the universities of Fort Hare (1979), Zululand (1986) and Bophutatswana (1986/7), his acceptance into the art establishment was only fully accomplished by the retrospective exhibition and catalogue of his works put together by the staff of the South African National Gallery in 1996, and the publication of a monograph on his works by Sarah Huddleston in the same year.
A highly successful exhibition comprising of paintings from the 1940's up to the present day was held at The Everard Read Gallery in 1991. The exhibition in 1992 served to commemorate his 80th birthday, which was celebrated at the King George VI Art Gallery in Port Elizabeth earlier that year.
With Pemba's death the era of the pioneers comes to an end. He blazed a trail through the art establishment in South Africa, laying claim to a place for black artists, but at the same time refusing to compromise his political and moral principles.
His works are now in the major museums in South Africa, he has taken his place as one of the leading figures in not only the history of South African art, but of African art in the 20th century.
1928 Feather Market Hall, Port Elizabeth
The University of Fort Hare
1928 Highly Commended, Port Elizabeth Annual Exhibition
1944 Scenes of black Tribal life, Bantu Welfare Trust
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